“Meat glue” is a natural enzyme found in plants and animals which causes blood to clot. Recently, scientists have discovered how to mass produce the enzyme using bacteria, and that spreading it between two pieces of meat will cause the muscle fibers and proteins to fuse together, almost as if they were a single cut. Chefs have used meat glue for all kinds of creative purposes, forming proteins into all kind of wacky shapes, like spaghetti made entirely of shrimp. The meat industry uses it to pass off left-over scraps as filet mignon.
The enzyme itself is not dangerous when used correctly, and is labelled “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. When used in reasonable quantities, it breaks down and becomes inactive in the process of gluing meat together, any cooking heat will and the human stomach can also quickly break it down with no ill effect. In its active, powdered form, it can be irritating to the skin, and could cause damage to the nose, mouth, or esophagus if inhaled or swallowed. But the same could be said of a lot of household chemicals. If you’re worried that food producers might accidentally contaminate your steak with too much, well, there’s a lot of things that food producers might accidentally contaminate you with. I don’t imagine the enzyme is especially harmful compared to the multitude of drug-resistant diseases in the world, and most food companies take this stuff very seriously, since they’re personally responsible if their product hurts someone. I’ve also heard that you can tell if the enzyme is still working because it will smell like wet dog (yet another reason to always sniff your meat before cooking).
Those with celiac’s disease or any sensitivity to gluten may want to pay attention to meat glue in the near future. Research appears to be preliminary, but it seems that the enzyme has an interesting response to gluten. Under certain conditions, the enzyme can make gluten even more allergenic, meaning that gluten free products with only trace amounts of gluten could become problematic. Other research says that meat glue may be used to render gluten entirely non allergenic. In the mean time, my recommendation is to source your meat carefully for now, and keep an eye on the news for further information.
Finally, we come to the real problem of meat glue, which has nothing to do with the enzyme itself and everything to do with its deceptive nature and the fact that it puts the outsides of meat back on the inside.
Most of us are aware that it is relatively safe to eat a steak rare, but that ground beef should be cooked all the way through to prevent food poisoning. That’s because bacteria and viruses don’t often penetrate meats; they just sit on the very outer surface. Ground beef, and meat glued products, have surfaces that could have been exposed to disease all the way through to the center, and have to be cooked accordingly. But because meat glue products look and are sold as ordinary steaks, consumers may not know that eating them rare could expose them to all kinds of serious food-borne illnesses. Steaks that have been reassembled from parts are now required to be labelled as such, but it is left to the consumer to find that label, understand what that means, and to cook it accordingly. An even bigger potential danger comes from restaurants, who are not required to pass that warning label on to you. Most responsible, high end restaurants understand the dangers involved with such products, and will handle them safely if they choose to use them at all. But if you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask where the meat comes from, and order them well if there’s any uncertainty left.
Final word: The glue itself probably won’t hurt you, but if you like your steaks bloody, be absolutely sure to get the genuine article.