Was that gross hot dog study for real?

A recent report from Clear Labs claimed to have found human DNA in 67 percent of vegetarian hot dogs, which made national headlines. But what is Clear Labs, and what is its methodology?

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.

Earlier this week, an obscure California startup made headlines when it published a report claiming to have found human DNA – among other unsavory, unlabeled ingredients – in some samples of hot dogs.

Several prominent news outlets, including The Christian Science Monitor, reported that the startup had detected meat in vegetarian hot dogs, pork in chicken and turkey sausages, and protein amounts in vegetarian hot dogs that were exaggerated on labels by as much as 2.5 times.

The for-profit company offered few details on its methodology, beyond saying that it used a “proprietary next-generation genomic sequencing workflow.”

The same day that the news of the study hit, Snopes, a site devoted to busting urban legends, raised a red flag.

“It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility hot dogs contain ingredients or adulterants folks might find unappetizing,” wrote Snopes's Kim LaCapria, “but the claim about meat and human DNA adulterants did not originate with a 'study' of any sort. Its findings lay solely with a brand new, private company who didn't disclose any details of their purported testing (or any proof that meaningful research was undertaken at all).”

Ms. LaCapria labeled the finding as "unproven."

The company is Clear Labs, which was founded last year in Menlo Park, Calif., although it just officially launched to the public this week. Its co-founders are Sasan Amini, whose bio on the company website notes a Princeton University doctorate in genomics, and Mahni Ghorashi, who has an MBA from Vanderbilt University, according to the professional networking site LinkedIn.

Silicon Valley venture capital firms Khosla Ventures, Felicis Ventures, and HBM Genomics have invested $8 million in the startup, according to the founders.

In a phone call with the Monitor, Mr. Ghorashi said the company's “core mission is to set a new standard in molecular food quality in the global food industry.”

To that end, the startup has developed a way to capitalize on advances in genomics – and consumer interest in food quality and safety – that allow for sequencing of DNA much more quickly and cheaply than before, a boon for testing the genetic makeup of food. A company spokeswoman also says that Clear Labs didn't release the specific methodology and lab results of its hot dog study because it submitted them to a peer-reviewed science journal, which means that it can't reveal the details yet.

In the meantime, Clear Lab's business hinges on selling genomics services to retailers and manufacturers – the names of which Clear Labs will announce soon, it says – so that they can choose the most highly rated food suppliers and “differentiate their brand,” says Mr. Ghorashi, who’s in charge of marketing and business development for the company.

Food companies can do this, presumably, by cleaning up their supply chains and getting featured on Clear Food, the company's consumer education and marketing arm that released the hot dog report. The startup has a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource ideas for the food group to test for its next report.

Mr. Ghorashi says that his company is committed to avoiding the conflicts of interest that may arise from attempting to sell services to food companies while at the same time publishing ratings of those companies' products for the public.

“We don’t let our commercial interests impact the methodologies or rankings,” he says. ”We want to deliver a guide to consumers so they can make better decisions and reward brands that are outperforming the rest.

But Clear Labs does not disclose the names of the companies that perform poorly, revealing only those with the highest scores.

“Our goal is not to put bad performers out of business by shaming them publicly,” wrote a company spokeswoman in an e-mail. “Our goal is to raise the bar for everyone.”

As the hot dog study awaits peer review, Dr. Amini, chief executive of Clear Labs, points out that the startup published in March peer-reviewed research on seafood mislabeling, using its DNA sequencing technology, in the journal Food Control. The company also provided a copy of a performance evaluation of their testing methodology from UK-based lab standards setter LGC Group.

The organization sent unidentified samples of food to Clear Labs, which identified all the ingredients with 100 percent accuracy.

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