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The Changing Definition of Steak

September 9, 2014

Think you know what it takes for meat to be a steak?

I thought I did too. But we live in interesting times when food isn’t always as it seems. A steak is historically a solid piece of meat cut from an animal. For today, let’s not fiddle around with the fine differences between steaks and chops. Many chops are more commonly referred to as steaks these days anyhow. I can live with that.

Each cow has one tenderloin. If you order a tenderloin steak, you have every reason to believe that you are getting a nice slice of that one lean muscle.

However, definitions change. These days it seems to be the meat industry that is changing the definitions to increase its profits, with some hapless underfunded US regulatory body largely populated by industry insiders rubber stamping the change.

Once upon a time I thought ground beef actually had to start as solid meat that was mechanically ground. How young and naive I was. Well, I’ve got some bad news about what is now being passed off as steak.

My chief complaint, as usual, isn’t about safety, but rather consumer deception.

There’s a really cool ingredient with a really scary name. It’s called transglutaminase. The meat industry hates it when people call it “meat glue” (one industry insider wrote that TG was more like a zipper). But it does bind proteins together. That can be a very useful trait if you are a molecular gastronomist and you want to create some kind of striped meat cube out of scallops and pork belly.

Some people who are anti-science want the ingredient banned outright. I’m not one of those. If you can use this powder to make bacon wrapped shrimp even better, I say, “go for it.”

But the meat industry has found a more insidious use for it.

As much as the industry has tried to standardize the sizes of animals, the muscles aren’t all identically shaped. For example, a tenderloin is thin and pointy on one end, and all fat and wobbly on the other. Historically, each of these end pieces has had its culinary use. Sure, they might sell for slightly less than the premium center cuts. But that’s part of the butchery business.

Well, think how much better it would be for the meat processors if they could get the full price for those pointy and wobbly end pieces?

Turns out that transglutaminase is good for that too.

Say goodbye to the old days when a steak was just a single piece of meat. Now it can be two. And really, it could be many more.

Do you think you could notice the difference in appearance or taste when you are served one at a restaurant? Experts can’t. The video below is a fair bit more inflammatory than it should be, and I hate to spread around some of its hyperbolic fear mongering, but it does show what the foodservice version of this product looks like (4:22).

No, this isn’t a new phenomenon. People have been upset about it for years. But it does seem like the drumbeat has been getting louder lately. So, I thought I would contribute to the debate.

For the sake of being fair and balanced, after watching the incendiary video above, you may want to check out the counterclaims from the meat industry here.

Beyond the immediate deception, I do have concerns about what happens when the outside of one piece of meat is now tucked into the inside of one of these newfangled steaks. One reason why some people feel more comfortable eating rare steaks than rare burgers is because bacteria mostly reside on the surface of solid meat. Those get killed quickly when the meat is seared. When two pieces of meat are bound together, there are exterior surfaces now in the cooler (more bacteria-friendly) interior.

Although the issue of interior bacterial contamination also existed for years with mechanically tenderized steaks (a process that was also hidden from consumers).

The bottom line here is that the meat industry keeps on coming up with clever ways to sell cheap meat at a premium price, under a veil of secrecy, regardless of the potential implications to consumer health, with the explicit approval of the federal government.

My question is not what to do about this now. I’m more curious about what will come next.

Be vigilant. Know where your meat comes from. Be wary of meat that is inexpensive. I wouldn’t blame you if you opted out of the industrial meat production cycle entirely. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me more times than I can count, and I have to ask myself why I buy meat from restaurants and supermarkets at all.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2014 10:22 am

    Transglutaminase is an enzyme that even the best chefs have been using for a number of years to present diners with a perfectly sized portion of meat or fish, but its roots are in the commercial food industry. It’s what makes a McNugget a McNugget. I for one would like to see it listed as an INGREDIENT.

  2. EPT permalink
    September 9, 2014 11:07 am

    Sorry, but a cow/steer has TWO tenderloins, both run along the spine and are either sold a filet or as part of a porterhouse steak

    • September 9, 2014 1:06 pm

      Don’t be sorry. I was imprecise. It happens, especially in the realm of meat. Conflating cow for steer is probably another one of my offenses. I will try to be more careful.

      In my defense, I typically think of beef cuts as they relate to sides of meat and not whole animals. But that doesn’t make me any less wrong.

      Good catch. Thank you.

  3. docsconz permalink
    September 23, 2014 6:16 pm

    Transglutaminase is a tool and an ingredient like any other and its use, especially commercially should be made known. Daniel, you are spot on when talking about internal contamination. As a result any meat product with transglutaminase should be cooked through. One way of doing that adequately, may be by cooking the meat sous vide using proper guidelines. When used intelligently and artfully, it can be great. When not….

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