Nobody wants to know how a hot dog is made, because you always know there’s some crazy stuff inside. If you’re one of those persons, stop reading now. Alright, time for a reality check. According to the  “The Hot Dog Report” released by Clear Food, a company on a mission to demystify the black box that’s the US food industry, many consumer brands add more ingredients in their sausages than you’d wished for, i.e. labeled.

The company sequenced the genetic material from 345 samples of hot dogs across 75 brands and found that around 15% were problematic. This means a deceiving label, whether exaggerating the protein content or finding pork in your chicken sausage. About 67% of the veggie samples had hygiene issues. Perhaps most disturbing is that 1 in 10 so-called veggie hot dogs had meat in them, and 2% of all samples had human DNA inside.

hot dog

Image: Pixabay, HannahChen

“It’s sort of the ultimate mystery meat,” says Clear Food co-founder Mahni Ghorashi motivating the company’s decision to start their first large scale report with hot dogs. As expected, Ghorashi and colleagues found a lot of problems with the hot dogs, which also account for a considerable market worth $2.5 billion in the US. Another $3 billion market makes up dinner and breakfast sausages.

What’s inside a hot dog

Basically, a hot dog is made up of leftovers from butchered meat, also called ‘trimmings’. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): “The raw meat materials used for precooked-cooked products are lower-grade muscle trimmings, fatty tissues, head meat, animal feet, animal skin, blood, liver and other edible slaughter by-products.” Basically, that’s the worst kind of meat you can wish for, but that doesn’t stop a lot of Americans from readily buying them. The National Hot Dog & Sausage Council estimates that Americans eat about seven billion franks during hot dog “season,” which stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Of course, some high quality producers make hot dog without trimmings. Examples include  kosher, all beef hot dogs that have no by-products, fillers or artificial colors or flavors.

Almost all the sausages and hot dogs you buy from a retailer are made in factories where they’re churned out by the second. Large machines mix and chop the meat along with spices and other ingredients, then through automatic stuffers where the emulsified mixture is cased. Then, long links of hot dogs are cooked in a smokehouse, cooled by being passed under a water shower, and packaged. Some companies are less careful than others with this process and some unexpected ingredients come up. For instance, the report found:

  • pork substitution in 3% of the samples tested, i.e. where pork shouldn’t have been.  In most cases pork was substituted for chicken or turkey;
  • 14.4% of all hot dogs had problem of some sort;
  • labels of some vegetarian products exaggerated the amount of protein in the item by as much as 2.5 times;
  • evidence of chicken (10 samples), beef (4 samples), turkey (3 samples), and lamb (2 samples) in products that didn’t list those ingredients.
  • veggie hot dogs were the worst. One in ten contained meat, and 67% were prepared in non-hygienic conditions.
  • Human DNA was found in 2% of all samples and 2/3 of all veggie samples. Human DNA isn’t harmful but the contamination suggests that the manufacturing process isn’t clean and human contaminants easily slip in. For instance, a worker might shed some hair or skin in the factory, but sometimes maybe even harmful bacteria.

The report isn’t all gloom, though. The researchers found some brands that prepared their hot dogs with integrity. The company assigned a clarity score to each brand from 1 to 100, where 100 means everything inside is as the label states. The most ‘honest’ hot dogs are made by Butterball, McCornick, Eckrich and Hebrew National (all scored 96). Next, Clear Food plans to test other food stuffs using the same methodology.


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