Consumer confidence in beef has weakened in recent months, with media headlines screaming about "pink slime" and "mad cow disease." These reports centered around controversies about lean finely textured beef rendered at Beef Products Inc. and the BSE case in a California dairy cow. Just as the dust started to settle on these two issues, new media reports began cropping up about "meat glue," igniting consumer panic about the safety and wholesomeness of beef.
With summer grilling season kicking off, Keith Underwood, assistant professor and Extension meat specialist at South Dakota State University (SDSU) set the record straight on beef, explaining the "meat glue" process in layman's terms. He explains that transglutaminase, or "meat glue," is a naturally-occuring enzyme used to bind pieces of meat into a single cut that is safe to consume.
"More or less, meat glue is a binding agent that basically tightly bonds proteins together," Underwood explained. "It is commonly used in beef tenderloins where we expect a nice, round steak. At the end of the loin, the beef tails down, so by combining the two, it can make a nice steak. It can also be used for bacon-wrapped products."
How do consumers know if they are eating a whole muscle cut or something that has been packaged together using this process? Use the label. At retailers, labels will say "formed" or "reformed" to indicate if binders have been used. Products made using binders might be "value brand" steaks, imitation crab, chicken nuggets and fish sticks.
"The steaks don't have to be labeled if they are in a restaurant, but they do if they are sold in a local grocery store," said Underwood. "According to FSIS regulations, any ingredients need to be labeled in the product."
While "meat glue" might be another setback for beef demand, the message producers can take home is that consumers are seeking more information about the foods they eat.
"Today the consumer is looking for more transparency than ever before," Underwood said. "Now that the consumer is learning more about our technologies, they want to better understand the process. In my opinion, the way to make sure the consumer is understanding is to be open and honest and point them to where they can find information that is easily accessible and reliable. We need to direct consumers to the American Meat Institute, Extension or universities, as the information provided is based on sound science not sensationalism."
Underwood said with so much information available on the Internet, it's easy for consumers to be misguided.
"There is so much information on the Internet, coming from blogs that don't necessarily have to check their facts," he said. "It seems anyone can write a blog, and I would be more hesitant to rely on these bloggers for credible information. That's why it's so important to direct consumers to science-based information from credible sources to explain our technologies. As far as lean finely textured beef and meat enzymes, these are technologies that have been used for many years. There are no safety issues or health concerns related to them, and it helps us provide a product that will meet consumer demands. When we explain it that way, most people are pretty open to the idea."
The fallout from these media controversies may be long-lasting, Underwood predicted.
"There is definitely going to be some long-term fallout from lean finely textured beef," he said. "More than likely, ground beef prices will increase because we won't have the product to meet the summertime demand. We will probably have to import more lean beef to meet the demand. If people want to support local or U.S. beef, it may not be as easy or it may cost more to do so. The beef industry has certainly learned some lessons from this. We will need to be more proactive and have more resources explaining our practices. We have some good factual information available to share with our consumers; our challenge is now getting the information out there."