Tom Philpott

Is "Meat Glue" As Gross As It Sounds?

| Mon May. 7, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Three strips of beef that have been bound together with "meat glue" and rolled into a log, in preparation for being sliced into steak-like pieces.

Update (Friday, June 8): Tom Philpott joined Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss "meat glue", "pink slime", and other issues affecting the meat industry. Listen to the interview here.

Broadcast news and social-media sites have been aflame with reports about something called "meat glue."

"If you were disturbed to hear about 'pink slime' in your burger, you'll want to know about 'meat glue,' because a fat, rare-cooked filet mignon may not be what it seems," ABC News' Bay Area affiliate gasped last week.

First reaction: Ooh, gross. Reaction upon a bit of reflection: Meat glue, an enzyme known as transglutaminase, is indeed a trick up the meat industry's sleeve, but a relatively minor one in the grand scheme.

A couple of weeks ago, I named four common industry practices that are "grosser than pink slime." (Pink slime itself is pretty gross.) Here's a fifth: Every year, dairy and beef cows are fed around 2 billion pounds of chicken litter—chicken shit, dead chickens, and leftover feeds, which contains cow protein. Cows being fed chicken shit is deeply gross; cows eating cow protein is downright scary.

But using transglutaminase to glue pieces of meat together? It can be a dodgy practice, but it doesn't make the cut.

Transglutaminase is an enzyme, naturally found in blood, that can bind proteins together. Food scientists figured out how to synthesize it from bacteria, and a Japanese company called Ajinomoto markets it in the United States under the brand name Activa.

As far as I can tell, there are no health problems associated with consuming transglutaminase itself. Environmental Working Group's "Skin Deep" cosmetics database lists it as an ingredient in six hair-care products and categorizes it as a "low hazard" substance.

The dodgy part lies in how the meat industry can put it to use. Meat purveyors can use it to bind together disparate scraps of meat that can be sliced into cuts that look shockingly like whole steaks—thus passing off cheap scraps as pricey cuts. The Ajinomoto site has an image, captioned "Sample Beef Application," that illustrates how four thin strands of beef can be bound together into a piece resembling a fat beef tenderloin, which can then be sliced into cuts that look a whole lot like pristine filet mignons.It's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application": Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLCIt's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application." Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC

Beyond deception, there's a food safety angle here, too. I've written a lot about how US meat is routinely tainted with pathogens, often strains that are resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria appear only on the surface of meat; so when you sear a real steak on both sides, you're also killing those bacteria, even if the meat inside is cooked rare. (Ground meat, of course, is different—since surface area gets ground into the final product, you have to cook it all the way through to ensure that you're not risking illness.)

But in a "steak" made up of several pieces bound by meat glue, surface meat (and any pathogens like salmonella clinging to it) ends up inside the final cut—so searing on both sides won't do the trick. A rare real steak can be a pleasure to eat; rare meat-glued "steak" presents a potential health hazard.

Happily, the USDA's meat inspection service decreed in 2001 that cuts that have been cobbled together with transglutaminase have to add a label indicating "that it has been formed from pieces of whole muscle meat, or that it has been reformed from a single cut." Such a labeling requirement, while important, doesn't warn consumers that the cuts should be cooked all the way through, though.

And anyway, such labels only inform consumers when they're shopping at the supermarket. But according to ABC News' reporting, consumers are more likely to encounter transglutaminase-bound cuts when eating outside the home.

Pinning down who is using transglutaminase isn't easy. One meat company owner told KGO-TV that gluing meat is common practice, and the most glued product by far is filet mignon destined for the food service industry. An industry trade group also said meat glue is most often used where filet mignon is served in bulk—at a restaurant, banquet, cafeteria or hotel.

God forbid, if I ever find myself at some cursed banquet where they're serving "filet mignon," I'll eat around the entree—whether or not it's cooked to the leather stage to kill pathogens. But honestly, I'll probably be thinking more about the cow's awful life and deplorable diet than I am about the meat glue.

Now, the other way consumers might find themselves eating glued meat is at a very different kind of meal: at a high-end restaurant run by a creative chef. The standard bearer for such chefs in the United States, Wylie Dufresne of Manhattan's WD-50, loves the stuff. According to Meat Paper, he has "concocted all manner of playful and bizarre food products with meat glue, including shrimp spaghetti, which he made by mixing salt, cayenne, deveined shrimp, and meat glue in a blender."

Would I eat Dufresne's famous "shrimp spaghetti" if confronted with a plate of it?

Honestly, yes. I trust chefs on Dufresne's level to use top-quality raw materials and cook them properly—even if I can rarely afford to eat their food. I guess, in the end, it's not the glue itself I find particularly gross; it's when it's used to bind together industrial meat that that it gets me.

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Revenge of the Lunch Ladies

| Fri May. 4, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Chicago's cafeteria workers took to the streets—and won.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how our public school lunch program has been systematically starved of both money and time—to the point that kids now get a median of 25 minutes, and often quite a bit less, to wolf down lunch.

If they're lucky, the meal they're being forced to inhale as quickly as possible will have been prepared by actual cooks working with fresh ingredients. More likely, though, they're getting reheated prefab fare. Fewer than half US schools operate working kitchens, The New Yorker reported in 2006—and the Great Recession and the resulting pullback in public spending has only accelerated the trend toward school cafeterias as reheating centers for industrially made food. Last summer, for example, the city of Philadelphia shuttered 26 school kitchens in a budget-cutting move.

The city of Chicago, steered for years by privatization-happy Democrats Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel, has been heading down a similar path. Of the 11 new schools the city has built under a $1 billion program since 2006, 9 have no kitchen facilities and serve food based on what the Unite Here union, which organizes Chicago's cafeteria workers, calls the "frozen food model."

Time to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Industrial Agriculture?

| Wed May. 2, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
At a grain elevator in Illinois, corn is loaded into trucks, on the way to being turned into meat, ethanol, or corn syrup.

Like a good buffet, Nature's recent meta-analysis comparing the productivity of industrial and organic agriculture offered something for every taste.

For enthusiasts of large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, there was this headline finding: Yields on organic farming—the amount of crop produced per acre—are on average 25 percent lower than those of industrial farming.

And for biodiversity fans like me, the study had a caveat: Most of organic's so-called yield penalty lies in grain crops like wheat; for fruit and some vegetables, organic ag is nearly (but not quite) as productive as its chemical-laced counterpart.

Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

When I'm constructing a quick meal, I typically try to balance a protein, a complex starch, and some richly colored vegetables and/or herbs. (I buy into the nutritional school of thought that says the more colorful the food, the more nutrition it packs).

For this low-fuss, high-flavor, minimalist lunch, I did just that. Hit it with your favorite spicy condiment—like my own choice, salsa macha—and you've got something fun to eat that won't take up lots of time or dirty lots of dishes.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad
(Serves one; can easily be doubled—if you do, use the largest skillet you have.)

1 large sweet potato
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A bit of butter
1-2 eggs (I can never eat more than 1 fried or baked egg at a time)
1 good handful of parsley
2 slices of a big red onion (the rest reserved for another use)
A little fresh lemon juice or vinegar

Preheat oven to 475°.

Slice the sweet potato crosswise at a slight angle into quarter-inch rounds, then stack the rounds into two piles and slice them into sticks (see photo, above left). Drop them into a bowl, give them a few good drizzles of olive oil and a good lashing of salt and pepper, and toss them to coat. Now lay them out in a single layer in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, and bake in oven. After about 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 300° and flip the potato sticks over with a spatula. Return them to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the parsley and onion and add them to the same bowl that you tossed the potatoes in. Give them a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or a bit of vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to combine, taste, and adjust seasoning as you like. Set aside.

The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. After the potatoes have had their second 10 minutes in the oven, remove the skillet and make a clearing in the middle with a spatula. Add a little pat of butter and let it melt, using a spatula to coat the clearing. Crack your egg or eggs to the sizzling butter in the clearing, season the egg(s) with salt and pepper, and return the skillet to the oven. Cook until the whites are set and the yolk(s) are as you prefer (I like them a bit runny).

Slide the sweet potatoes onto a plate with a spatula, slide the egg on top of the potatoes, and top it all with the salad. Enjoy.

Why You Should Be Worried About the California Mad Cow Case

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 10:50 AM PDT

Move along, nothing to see here.

That sums up the USDA's public reaction to news that a downed California dairy cow was discovered to have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. The cow had an "atypical" case of BSE, one that likely doesn't come from BSE-infected feed, but rather from a genetic mutation, the agency insists.

Moreover, it never came close to entering the food supply, USDA stressed—it had shown up dead at a rendering facility, where it was randomly chosen for testing as part of the USDA's BSE-testing program. USDA chief Tom Vilsack, ever ready to jump to the meat industry's aid at a time of need, declared on CNN, "I'm having beef tonight for dinner. And that's no lie."

Global food and health agencies echoed the USDA's assessment, Bloomberg reports: "The U.S. finding of a case of mad cow disease shows the country’s surveillance system is working, according to the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health."

Can You Get Mad Cow Disease From Milk?

| Thu Apr. 26, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

USDA-mandated testing turned up a downed California dairy cow that was infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as mad cow disease, the agency announced Tuesday. According to an exec with the rendering plant where the poor beast ended up, it was chosen for testing completely at random, having shown "no signs" of disease.

The scenario suggests that relatively recently, a BSE-infected cow was producing milk for public consumption. According to the USDA, there's nothing to worry about. The agency's chief veterinary officer, John Clifford, released a statement Tuesday declaring that the the the cow in question had "atypical BSE, a very rare form of the disease not generally associated with an animal consuming infected feed." He added that "milk does not transmit BSE."

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To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 10:51 AM PDT

Corn is by far the biggest US crop, and a network of corporations has sprouted up that profits handsomely from it. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sell the seeds and chemicals used to grow it, while Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and their peers buy the finished crop and transform it into meat, ethanol, sweetener, and a range of food ingredients. Known in Washington as King Corn, the corn lobby wields formidable power in political circles. 

And the economic pie these companies gorge on is massive. Pesticide Action Network's Heather Pilatic has an great post about how integrated pest management in US corn fields collapsed with the introduction of Monsanto's seeds engineered to contain the pesticide Bt and with the rise of Bayer's neonicotinoid-pesticide seed treatments—representing billions in annual sales to those companies. On the corn-processing side, government mandates ensure that a huge portion of the corn crop—currently, 40 percent—gets diverted into the fuel supply in the form of ethanol, a huge boon to ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland.

11 Minutes To Eat School Lunch?!?

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

My recent post on the question of food deserts and people's eating habits led me to a topic I haven't touched in a while: school lunches. I wrote about it a lot in 2009-'10, when Congress was working on its once-in-five-years reauthorization of lunch funding.

Amid much hype in late 2010, President Obama signed a reauthorization bill that created new guidelines to encourage more fresh and healthy foods, but allocated an extra 6 cents a day per kid—a miserly sum given that schools have less than $3.00 per day to spend on each kid's lunch, about two-thirds of which goes to overhead, leaving pennies to spend on ingredients.

It's hard for me to imagine that schools can serve up decent food at those rates. And money isn't the only scarce commodity cafeteria operators have to grapple with. Another one is time. Get this:

In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad enough. But realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes (we have been timing it).

That's from Minneapolis sixth graders Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter, writing on the op-ed page of the Minnesota Star Tribune. Ten to 11 minutes to eat lunch? Welcome to fast-food nation, kids, where eating is a necessary inconvenience, to be dispatched with as rapidly as possible.

Nationwide, similar trends hold sway. According to the School Nutrition Association, elementary-school kids get a median of 25 minutes for lunch, while middle and high school students get 30.

Over at the Lunch Tray blog, University of Iowa law professor and parent of public-school children Chris Liebig offers the following explanation for what he calls the "incredible shrinking lunch period":

At a meeting with concerned parents, the school superintendent sympathized with our concerns, but explained how much pressure the administrators were under, because of No Child Left Behind, to raise standardized test scores. As a result, administrators felt that they had to add instructional time to the day, and there were only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess.

What seems to be going on in schools is that administrators are drawing a clean line between eating and education—and squeezing the one in order to make more time for the other in an era of budget cuts.

But as Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel argues, that distinction is false. She points to a post by Karen Le Billion (author of French Kids Eat Everything), who puts the case like this:

Learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom, in my opinion. If we are giving our children a short lunch break, we are teaching them that food is an inconvenience, and eating is an interruption in the day. We encourage them to gobble their food, when the research shows that eating more slowly is healthier. In fact, the French spend longer eating, but eat less–in part because that ‘fullness feeling’ (satiety signal) needs about 20 minutes to get from your stomach to your brain. But the French also spend longer eating because they believe that it’s important to teach kids to eat well—it’s a life skill, like reading.

Hustling kids through lunch, by contrast, seems an ideal way to mint life-long customers for the fast-food industry.

Supermarkets, Food Deserts, and School Lunch

| Fri Apr. 20, 2012 4:00 AM PDT
Supermarkets: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

My colleague Kevin Drum has a good post rounding up recent research on the problem of food deserts—neighborhoods that lack access to large supermarkets and are instead served largely by corner stores.

Food deserts have come under scrutiny as a possible cause of obesity and other diet-related health problems in low-income neighborhoods. But as Kevin shows in his post, there's no evidence that adding a supermarket to a neighborhood automatically changes people's diets or improves their health outcomes.

Bum Steer: How Big Pharma Dominates Meat Science

| Thu Apr. 19, 2012 3:41 PM PDT

It isn't just ourselves or our pets that have been getting bigger over the past couple of decades. Turns out, our beef cows have become gigantic too. How big? According to an excellent article by Melody Petersen in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975."

That's a hefty 30 percent gain. What gives? According to Peterson, the main reason is pharmaceutical: heavy use of antibiotics, hormones, and other growth-enhancing drugs. Peterson untangles the web that connects pharmaceutical giants like Merck to professors at big public land-grant universities, who not only act as paid researchers to develop new products but also as shills who appeal directly to cattle feedlot operators.