What's in that hot dog? More than you might think, report finds

Through molecular analysis, a food lab found that 10 percent of vegetarian hot dogs tested contain meat.

Lee Smith Livepic/Action Images/Reuters
A Manchester United fan holds a hot dog outside the stadium before the Manchester United v VfL Wolfsburg match in Manchester, England, Sept. 30.

Few things symbolize American culture more than the hot dog. Just thinking about it conjures images of lazy summer barbecues, iconic food vendors on bustling New York City streets, and sunny afternoons at the ball game.

But after a closer examination of the ingredients that make up the beloved frank, a more unsavory image emerges: meat in vegetarian hot dogs, pork in chicken and turkey sausages, and even human DNA in some meat and vegetarian hot dogs.

According to a molecular analysis by Clear Labs, a California startup that analyzes food, 14 percent of the 345 hot dogs tested had unexpected – and undesirable – ingredients.

“Sausages are the world's original ‘mystery meat,’ and hot dogs have always provoked ingredient anxiety,” writes Clear Labs in its recent report on hot dog ingredients. This anxiety, says the firm, “is not wholly unwarranted.”

Though the packages are expected to list all the sausage ingredients, Clear Labs found some discrepancies, and not just in cheaper brands.

Here are a few findings:

  • Ten percent of vegetarian hot dogs the lab tested contained meat
  • Some vegetarian sausages exaggerated the amount of protein by as much as 2.5 times
  • Pork was substituted for chicken or turkey in 3 percent of the samples (Though Kosher products had no pork as promised)
  • Some 67 percent of vegetarian samples had traces of human DNA in them

Though some of the label discrepancies fall within levels deemed acceptable by the US Food and Drug Administration, the group says on its website that its work, “allows you, as the consumer, to decide whether the variance or problems meet your personal standard in your buying decision.”

The two-year-old startup, backed by venture capital firms including Khosla Ventures, explains that the mystery behind hot dog ingredients started in mid 19th century when rumors circulated that some butchers made sausages with ground dog meat. This could explain how the hot dog got its name, says Clear Labs.

In 2014, Americans spent $2.5 billion on hot dogs, which are made in factories from meat trimmings, spices, and other ingredients that are chopped and blended into an emulsification that’s stuffed into casings. The long links are then cooked in a smokehouse, cooled by being passed under a water shower, and packaged, describes Clear Labs.

Not all of the 75 hot dog brands flunked the Clear Labs test. Ten major national brands earned quality scores higher than 90 percent, with Butterball, McCormick, Eckrich, and Hebrew National ranking the highest. Target, Walmart, and Safeway sell the highest-scoring products out of the 10 retailers where samples were collected, Clear Labs found.

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