Reaction sizzles over use of meat glue

"That sounds really gnarly," said Craig Rosenberg from San Mateo.

"I don't want to go in there and order something and have it turn out as glued particles. That's what it is," said Russ Roeca from San Francisco.

They're talking about meat glue -- a white powder that does just what the name implies. It is used to rebuild steaks out of pieces of meat that would normally be discarded. The official name for meat glue is transglutaminase. It's also known as TG in the industry.

"What's transglutaminase made of?" asked Cathey Beyless from Oakland. "It doesn't sound very appetizing."

It's made from natural enzymes harvested from fermented bacteria. And our investigation revealed the most glued product by far is filet mignon. That's because it's expensive, up to $25 a pound.

We confirmed glued filets are found in the food industry -- where filet mignon is served in bulk -- at a restaurant, banquet, cafeteria or hotel.

"It's kind of sad to know that they're doing that and we're spending top dollar for this food," said Veronica Juarez from San Francisco.

Josh Epple owns Drewes Bros. Meats, an old school butcher shop in Noe Valley. He doesn't use meat glue, but he agreed to demonstrate how the industry fuses tail pieces of filet mignon. The meat glue goes on, he seals it tight in plastic wrap and puts it in the fridge for 24 hours. Then it looks like a round piece of meat.

"Make believe filet mignons. That totally worked... wow," said Epple.

He says a good butcher would spot glued meat, but not the consumer.

"I've had it before actually, from a meat company that gave me some freebies and it was top sirloin, not filet mignon, and I knew right away, but that's me," said Epple.

The federal government says meat processed with transglutaminase is safe to eat, but there is something you need to know. The outside of a piece of meat comes in contact with a lot of bacteria making its way from slaughterhouse to the 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.

After our story, the meat lobby in Washington and the product's manufacturer emailed us the following points. They say: TG is completely natural, there are no recorded health issues, sales to restaurants are very limited, it is a niche product, and TG must be labeled with "formed" or "reformed" meat.

"I've never seen a menu with reformed meat on it," said Rosenberg.

And that's another problem. If you are eating at a restaurant or banquet, you wouldn't know you are eating glued meat. The American Meat Institute says it's up to you to ask.

"It is on a label, it may not be on the label on the menu of a restaurant, but it is on a label that's somewhere in the facility, they've seen. So you should talk to your wait staff, you should talk to your chef, if you have any concerns, you need to ask and be informed," said Betsey Booren from the American Meat Institute.

We contacted a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. He says there needs to be tougher standards. He wants labels right on the menu.

"Most consumers if they're buying a cut of meat, a muscle cut, they think they're getting something from a single animal and if they're indeed getting something that has been reformed from different animals and glued back to together, people should know that," said Michael Hansen, a Consumer Reports senior scientist via Skype.

Again, the most important thing for you to know is to ask questions and if you are not sure, ask for your filet mignon to be cooked completely through to be on the safe side because of that bacteria that could be on the inside.

UPDATE (5/1/12): Since our story first aired, it has caught the attention of a California lawmaker. Sen. Ted Lieu from Redondo Beach is known for pushing for better labeling on seafood, and now he wants restaurants serving glued meat to do the same. "The best way to fix the issue of seafood mislabeling and pink slime and meat glue is really through disclosure," he said. "Consumers should just be told by the restaurant what it is they are actually eating."

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