Meat glue - the food industry's secret to fake a steak
Are you sure that premium steak you're eating is the real deal?
You just paid top dollar for that cut of ribeye or tenderloin.
But you may actually be eating off-cuts, glued together using a product that is allowed here.
Chefs and food suppliers The New Paper on Sunday approached say it is a lot more common that you think.
"It is rather widespread," says a spokesman from gourmet meat supplier mmmm!
"Meat glue is used to combine poorer beef quality or cheaper cuts to create an appearance of a more premium cut of beef or premium beef."
Local celebrity chef Eric Teo says it's used in some places where buffets are available.
The practice is known as meat gluing.
Mr Teo, who runs food and beverage consultancy ET Culinary Arts, tells TNPS: "Meat glue is kind of like a secret in the food industry because not many know about it.
"Good, reputable restaurants steer away from it but it is used by some restaurants mainly to cut cost.
"The cost savings come from using the unwanted meat trimmings."
Overseas, the use of meat glue in such a fashion received plenty of media attention after a 2011 exposé of the Australian meat industry. Some reports called it "franken-meat".
The glue is safe for consumption. Known as transglutaminase, it is an enzyme used by chefs to bind together various cuts of meat and is used in producing fishballs and sausages.
But the problem is consumers could be expecting something else and end up being cheated.
One netizen posted about her experience recently.
She did not want to be named but according to the post, she went to the high-end beef restaurant promoting unlimited servings of A5 wagyu beef.
A5 is the highest grade of wagyu beef from Japan. It is characterised by a delicate marbling of fat, depending on which part of the cow the meat comes from.
But she was upset when the meat was served.
She uploaded pictures of the meat and wrote on her Facebook page: "I don't need to be a connoisseur to know that A5 wagyu looks nothing like that.
"The perfectly round slices and lack of marbling look more like chunks of meat glued together with meat glue and sliced to pass off as wagyu."
When TNPS showed the photograph of the beef to food experts, several suspected that meat glue was used.
Chef Sam Leong of Forest restaurant says: "Even for a chef like me, it can be difficult to tell the two apart.
"When I was at a Szechuan steamboat restaurant in China, I didn't even realise that I was eating (reformed) beef until a friend pointed it out that it looked wrong."
The chefs also say that using meat glue is not wrong, as it has other uses in cooking, such as in modernist cooking techniques.
Food and beverage manager Abraham Tan of Royal Plaza on Scotts says: "The use of meat glue is for chefs to create and present dishes creatively by achieving results that are beyond imagination.
"But using meat glue to create the impression of a more premium cut and charging guests for it is not a fair practice."
But few restaurants will say in their menus that they are serving reformed meat, admits Mr Teo.
"If restaurants pretend that the meat they serve is of a premium quality, it is a form of cheating," he says.
Asst Prof Elison Lim from Nanyang Technological University's Nanyang Business School says:
"Consumers too have the responsibility to ensure they don't get deceived. If something marketed as premium steak is priced suspiciously cheaply, that can be a red flag. When something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
Transglutaminase is safe to eat, says assistant professor Yang Hongshun from National University of Singapore's Food Science and Technology programme.
"Unless the companies state that they do not use transglutaminase in their products, its general use is not cheating since transglutaminase is allowed in food," says Dr Yang.
"Companies have the right to use additives for their products as long as this practice follows corresponding regulations.
"Just like beverages, some companies use artificial sweeteners while others use natural sweeteners."
It is then up to the consumer to choose, says Dr Yang.
But while meat glue itself is safe for consumption, director of Food Science and Technology Programme at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) William Chen says there are potential food safety hazards during the preparation process.
Prof Chen explains: "There are more handling steps in the creation of glued meat, which may give room to bacterial growth.
"This happens not only the 'joint' area but also on other parts of the glued meat."
The risk of food poisoning is also increased when it comes to combined beef, since beef is usually not fully cooked.
"Such meat product should require higher cooking temperature to reduce the potential health hazard as much as possible," says Prof Chen.
Common bacterial growth that could cause illnesses include clostridium, salmonella, listeria, campylobacter and E.coli.
Restaurants and other sellers have the responsibility to provide accurate and adequate information about what they are selling to consumers, says Assistant Professor Elison Lim from NTU's Nanyang Business School.
Prof Lim, a marketing ethics expert, adds: "Of course, consumers also have the responsibility to ensure they don't get deceived.
"If something marketed as 'premium steak' is priced suspiciously cheaply, that can be a red flag.
"When something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
''Good, reputable restaurants steer away from it but it is used by some restaurants mainly to cut cost.''
— Local celebrity chef Eric Teo
Use of meat glue in other countries
In 2011, Australian news programme Today Tonight ran an expose on the country's meat industry, reporting that major meat suppliers had been using meat glue to mislead customers into believing they were buying prime cuts.
There were reports in Germany and the US shedding more light on this practice.
The US Department of Agriculture requires transglutaminase to be on the ingredient label if used, in addition to terms like "formed" or "reformed meat".
Besides misleading consumers, there is also a high risk of bacterial contamination, reported the Irish Examiner.
While meat glue is widely used, some variants are banned.
In 2010, the European Union banned bovine and porcine thrombin, a substance used as an additive to bind separate pieces of meat together into one piece.
Thrombin, which is also banned here, is an alternative to transglutaminase.
How meat glue is used
Demonstration by Prof William Chen at NTU's Food Process Engineering Lab
1. Various cuts of beef are rubbed with transglutaminase - a white powdery substance - as if it was a type of marinate.
2. The meat is layered together to form a row. It is possible to arrange the beef and fat trimmings in such a way that when cut, the cross-section shows a prime cut like rib-eye or tenderloin
3. The combined meat is then wrapped tightly in cling wrap and squeezed to form a long cylindrical shape to resemble a tenderloin before it is cut into steaks.
4. It is then placed in the fridge for more than six hours, allowing the enzyme to combine the cuts of beef into one contiguous piece.
5. The result is virtually indistinguishable from an actual cut of beef, says Prof Chen. When the meat is cooked, it becomes impossible to tell.
Watch the video at tnp.sg
You get what you pay for
How does reformed meat compare with actual prime cuts?
- Beef scraps or trims and unwanted parts of beef cost little.
- Cheap cuts of beef, such as brisket and chuck, cost between $3 and $10 for 200g. An equivalent-sized prime cut, such as a tenderloin or ribeye, can cost between $20 and $50.
- Raw reformed beef may look less firm than an actual cut of raw beef.
- It is harder to tell the difference in texture when they are cooked.
- Reformed beef can fall apart during cooking if the meat is not glued together properly.
- When cut, reformed beef can take on a circular shape due to the way it is made, says food and beverage manager Abraham Tan.
- Actual cuts of beef can be shaped differently.
- The flavour will be significantly different, says a spokesman of Mmmm!, a gourmet food supplier. This is because the amount of marbling, or intramuscular fat, on the meat cannot be reproduced with meat glue.
AVA: Using meat glue to cheat is not allowed
Using meat glue with the intention to pass off reformed meat as more expensive cuts is not permitted, says an Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) spokesman.
"This is not permitted as it would be potentially misleading to consumers."
Transglutaminase has been assessed to be safe and permitted for use in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, says the spokesman.
Singapore allows transglutaminase to be used as a general purpose food additive. "It is allowed to be used as a processing aid, under good manufacturing practice, in processed meat and fish products such as surimi, ham and fishballs to bind proteins together in the meat."
AVA advises consumers to cook foods thoroughly to kill any harmful bacteria that may be present as microorganisms can be naturally present on raw meat surfaces.
This is especially important when preparing meals for vulnerable individuals including children, seniors, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.