Quite possibly those 15 minute experts in the general press used the term “meat glue” because they didn’t take the time to learn how to pronounce transglutaminase. Meat glue certainly has more emotional impact on World News Tonight than Trans-gluta-whatever. And some of the Chicken Little reporting signaled their use of fear tactics over the facts.
Coming hard on the heels of the artificially induced hype over LFTB that ginned up some remarkably hysterical reporting that all but killed the product, the press almost seemed to sniff blood in the water – another ratings booster that would continue the sliming of the meat industry! Indeed, some people in our industry were already looking behind TG for what might become the third scandal. After all, ‘mad cow’ had all the earmarks of a bad time for the beef business but rational minds soon turned it into a non-event.
Well, the slime story grew legs because the meat industry thought it would go away. By the time the trade associations and BPI came to their senses and tried to mount a defense, the public relations battle was already lost. No amount of scientific justification was going to change a public that had already made up its collective mind.
This time, though, the American Meat Institute, the industry’s lead-dog on these matters, wasn’t going to take it lying down. All those rumors about the misuse of TG were stuff and nonsense and the AMI had the data to back up their position. Staying well ahead of what could have been a fast decaying curve, the AMI called a press conference and invited everyone to come. The trade press dialed in, of course, and so did the general press. Even ABC’s Jim Avila, the meat industry nemesis who whipped the public into a fine froth over LFTB, was there.
Janet Riley, the face of the AMI when it comes to the press and their go-to person when it comes to press confrontations, led off the conference with a short speech about who, what, where and then turned it over to the top guys at Ajinimoto and FX Technology. Ajinimoto supplies TG, FX supplies a similar product called fibrin.
More importantly, she turned over the conference to Dr. Dana Henson, a professor at North Carolina State University who knows both products well. Rather eloquently, he explained the science behind the product and allayed some of the unfounded fears that seemed to have been the drivers behind the coverage given by the uneducated press. Ms. Riley, who can turn around an impertinent question from an annoying reporter with the same smile and good humor as Paula Deen can whip up some butter drenched goodie in her Southern kitchen, was there to handle any hostilities. Fortunately, hostile intent wasn’t the general rule of the day.
Even more fortunately, the press conference seemed to have worked. A suddenly better educated press walked away thinking there might not be a ratings buster of a story here.
Afterwards, I chased down Dr. Hanson and asked him to expand on some of the things he said during the press conference. Let’s hope this is the last word on this subject.
Q. Last week, Janet Riley, AMI’s Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Member Services, hosted a quickly called press conference. The purpose was to clarify some of the rumors being circulated in the general press about transglutaminase – ‘meat glue’ is what a few of the less scrupulous reporters call it. You were one of the people the AMI asked to speak. Because some of those same reporters will consider your comments tainted, let’s establish your credentials. What are your qualifications to talk about the product?
A. I am the extension meat specialist at North Carolina State University, working within the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences. During my ten years at State, I have used both the TGA and the beef fibrin product in the meat science class I teach. I have also assisted various companies in North Carolina in using these ingredients as they attempted to develop new and innovative meat products.
Q. What are they and could you do a compare and contrast on them?
A. Both of these ingredients are used in the process of "cold binding" an entrée. In other words, meat can be shaped or reformed in its raw cold state. This is different than most other processing techniques where the bind is produced after the meat is cooked and the muscle protein has been denatured.
Transglutaminase is an enzyme that when mixed with meat, causes the raw muscle protein to link together. TGA is an enzyme that naturally occurs in cheese, vegetables, in animals and in humans. The beef fibrin product is an enzyme derived from beef plasma.
Q. What are the most common uses of these products?
A. Both of these products are most commonly used for food service purposes. In many cases, they help by creating uniform size meat cuts. For instance, these ingredients can help bind odd shaped beef tenderloins into a single uniform piece, allowing chefs better portion control as they cut steaks.
They also may be used to help attach bacon around the outside of a filet mignon or create very unique meat items that combine two or more meat proteins. As an example, beef and lobster might be combined to create a "surf and turf" entree.
Q. There seems to be a fear that TG and beef fibrin are used to cheat the public, assembling lower quality pieces of meat and passing them off as premium cuts. Riley said, “Allegations raised in the media that these enzymes could help form what appear to be premium cuts of meat out of smaller, inexpensive cuts are unfounded.” What are the safeguards to prevent those shortcuts?
A. Both products are regulated and approved for use by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Both products are regulated as ingredients and must be listed in the ingredient statement.
If these products are used in products sold at retail, consumers are provided that information on the label. There is a difference in labeling laws between the retail market and food service. If customers at a restaurant are served meat products using these enzymes the restaurant does not have to disclose the ingredients to the customer.
Using inexpensive cuts of meat and selling them as a premium product is really not an issue consumers should be concerned with. These ingredients are used to enhance or improve the value of already high value cuts, like beef tenderloin. It is not really feasible or ethical for a meat processor or a chef to use tough, lower quality meat cuts or various source trimming to try and create a product to intentionally mislead their customer. In some cases this practice may be illegal. For example, taking meat trimmings of one USDA Quality Grade and forming it into a steak and selling it as a higher USDA Quality Graded product would be in violation of the law.
Q. Let’s talk about the history of these two products. How long have they been available in the U.S. and Europe? Have they been involved in any recalls or food borne illnesses?
A. The safety record for both of these products has been unblemished here in the U.S. The USDA recommends that meat products that have been formed with TGA or beef fibrin be cooked to an end point temperature of 145 F with a minimum of a 3 minute hold time. By doing that, these products would be considered fully cooked and safe to eat.
Q. If anyone in the general public wants to do some personal research rather than rely on uncertain press reports, where would they go?
Q. I would encourage people to contact the companies that make these products. Both are well respected ingredient suppliers in the food industry. The TGA product is marketed as Activa and is made by a company called Ajinomoto (www.ajinomoto-usa.com). The beef fibrin product is sold as Fibrimex and is made by a group called FX Technology (www.fibrimex.com).
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.