It has a long scientific name, but it's known as "meat glue." It binds bits and pieces of meat together into what looks like a prime cut. But while pink slime may be unappetizing, glued meat that's not handled properly could make you sick.
This fat, rare-cooked filet mignon is not what it seems. We used meat glue on cheap beef scraps to fake a steak good enough to please a professional chef.
"It looks pretty nice, it looks almost too nice," says Staffan Terje, chef and owner of Perbacco restaurant in San Francisco.
Meat glue is a powder officially known as transglutaminase. Originally, the natural enzyme was harvested from animal blood. Now it's primarily produced through the fermentation of bacteria. Added to meat, it forms a nearly invisible and permanent bond to any other meat you stick it to.
Chef Terje takes food seriously. He doesn't use meat glue in his restaurant, but like many chefs, he knows how it works, and he agreed to show us.
He takes powder and dusts it liberally over the meat pieces. The coated stew meat then goes into a circular tin to give it a nice round filet mignon shape. He also decides to make a New York strip out of thin cuts of round steak; adding water makes a soupy glaze and an easier way to coat the meat. "You can see this is really sticky," Terje explains. "I'm gluing my fingers together." The final steps are to seal the meat in a vacuum bag, adding some pressure to the bond, and then it's off to the fridge to set overnight. "Twenty-four hours later we'll have steak," he says.
Our humble $4 a pound stew meat now looks like a $25 a pound prime filet.
The FDA lists transglutaminase as "generally recognized as safe." It's OK to eat cooked meat that's been glued. But here's the problem, the outside of a piece of meat comes in contact with a lot of bacteria making its way from slaughterhouse to table. Usually cooking a steak on the outside will kill all that off. The center of a single cut of steak is sterile, that's why you can eat it rare. But glue pieces of meat together and now bacteria like E. coli could be on the inside.
"And say somebody wants that filet steak rare, the center temperature is not going to reach the temperature that will actually kill the bacteria," says Terje. "And that's also a really, really happy environment for things that can kill you."
Pinning down who is using transglutaminase isn't easy. One meat company owner who wouldn't go on camera told us gluing meat is a common practice, and the most glued product by far is filet mignon destined for the food service industry.
An industry trade group told us meat glue is most often used where filet mignon is served in bulk -- at a restaurant, banquet, cafeteria or hotel.
"You ask yourself, how can they make money? Selling these cheap steaks all day long, and that look really nice, and this is one way of doing it," says Terje.
Our results were dramatic and our stew meat filet looked good, but the American Meat Institute, a lobby for the meat industry, wants to stress meat glue is used in the industry to glue scraps of filet mignon back together. Technically, you're still getting filet meat.
"It gives chefs and specialists some flexibility to create a very nutritious and healthy product and add value to what ultimately, worst-case scenario, would just be thrown away," says Betsy Booren with the American Meat Institute.
The USDA says transglutaminase must appear on the ingredient label in addition to terms like "formed" or "reformed meat." But that's the second problem. If you're eating glued meat at a banquet or restaurant, you're not likely to see "reformed meat" on the menu. You would never know.
We asked the meat lobby in Washington about that.
"You bring up a valid point, and you know, they may not see the label, but what they ought to do if they have concerns, and we understand that consumers, they want to understand where there food is coming from, they should ask their wait staff," says Booren.
"It has not reached a point where people generally are aware of it and I think it's primarily because, like pink slime, nobody knew where it was," says food safety attorney and advocate Bill Marler.
Marler says meat glue is used more than you think and the meat industry isn't giving consumers the whole picture. "I think what their fear is, is that the public's going to look at the information and go, 'I don't want to eat that.'"
The bottom line is that if you're at a place where you think you might be eating glued meat -- maybe they're selling a lot of steaks at a cheap price -- make sure it's cooked through. Think twice before you eat it rare.