Today's Special: Ammonia-Treated Meat Scraps?

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Shelke says some middle-market steak house chains serve "fabricated steak"—an FDA term referring to steak-like objects formed from pulverized flesh. "The end result looks like a beefsteak but in reality has been extruded. Meat is broken down into its components and then re-formed to look like the original. You think you're getting the same steak as if you were at a real Texas steakhouse."

The telltale sign that you're not is the meat's uniformity: all the steaks have the same look, size and same consistency. Another clue: Steaks right off the steer have marbling; they have tendons. Fabricated steaks have neither.

Shelke sees such products as the result of the public's demand for cheapness and consistency. "Meat, like any other product, will change its taste and texture depending on the weather and the time of year. But consumers expect the same thing day in and out."

Achieving consistency the old fashioned way is labor intensive and expensive. The meat must be checked constantly, and, when necessary, someone must switch out one steak for another. Fabricating them is easier and cheaper.

Whether or not your steak is real and how much meat you're getting in your Whopper, says Clint Carter, a contributing editor of the "Eat This, Not That" series of books put out by Rodale Press and Men's Health magazine, should be the least of your worries, at least where fast food is concerned.

Of larger concern is how many calories are you getting? How much saturated fat and sodium? The information can be found on the web, including from the chains' own websites, and from Men's Health.

When Marler's kids drag him to a Burger King or Wendy's or McDonald's, he makes sure to cut into burgers to see if they've been cooked properly. Is the meat pink? If it is, it's possible it has not been cooked to 165 degrees, the temperature needed to kill pathogenic bacteria. The meat should be brown inside. Color alone, however, is not a perfect test. The only way to be absolutely sure about the temperature is to travel with a meat thermometer.

Marler also checks to see what the health inspector has had to say about any restaurant he's thinking of patronizing—information that, once again, can usually be found online. The Secret Service, he says, should have checked with the Arlington, Virginia, Health District before President Obama chowed down at a local burger joint in 2009. They'd have found a long list of violations.

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