That’s right, human DNA. As in, homo sapiens. The other other white meat.
The study comes from Clear Labs—a food analytics startup based in Menlo Park, CA— which used “genomic technology” to investigate hot dogs on a molecular level. They analyzed 345 hot dogs from 75 brands, and found “human DNA in 2% of the samples, and in 2/3rds of the vegetarian samples.”
It sounds horrifying. And for most of the Internet, it was enough reason to go into full-on panic mode.
If you crunched the numbers, it was admittedly alarming. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council estimates that in this country alone, we consume around 20 billion hot dogs annually—or 70 hot dogs per person every year. And if this new research is in any way factual, 1.4 of your yearly hot dogs have bits of people in them.
Hope you enjoyed your lunch, Hannibal Lecter.
First of all, let’s all take a deep breath. It’s not like somebody found a pinkie in a Hebrew National. This information is coming from a study by a fairly new organization that’s using Kickstarter to fund much of its research.
Andrew L. Milkowski, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, says he’s “suspicious about the quality of (Clear Lab’s) information.”
After reviewing the company’s website and research, Milkowski claims that while the founders have a molecular genetics background, “as far as I can tell they do not have any expertise or scientific training around food or agriculture.” And they “provide limited information on their methodology. Do they have appropriate laboratory quality procedures with both positive and negative reference sample controls in their analyses? How do they assure there are no false positives?”
Milkowski adds: “Certainly their information can make some juicy headlines and promote their organization, but I personally do not trust any of it.”
(As of this writing, reps at Clear Lab have not responded to requests for comment.)
But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Clear Labs’ research methods and results can be trusted. How did actual human DNA end up in hotdogs? Is that even possible?
If you can stomach it, take a look at this video demonstrating how hot dogs are made.
It would appear that modern hot dogs are made almost entirely by scary-looking machines. Occasionally human workers are involved in the process, but they’re wearing so much protective gear you’d think they were handling plutonium. Does anyone leave a hotdog plant without taking a Silkwood shower?
So what are we missing? How is anything from the bodies of a hotdog worker getting into the mix?
We didn’t reach out to any of the major hot dog manufacturers, because obviously they would only deny the study’s findings. What are they going to tell us? “Oh yeah, sometimes a worker loses a finger or two in the goop vats. It happens. And most of our top guys have seriously dry skin. But hey, customers hardly ever taste the flakes.”
But there were plenty of impartial meat academics happy to weigh in. Like Davey Griffin, Ph.D., a professor and meat specialist at the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University.
“I have been in numerous plants that make hot dogs and other processed meat products across this country,” he told us. “Most consumers would be pleased and surprised to find out how clean and sanitary these plants are. Plant personnel wear clean clothes and gloves, they have sanitary working equipment, and the USDA regularly inspects to ensure that products are made cleanly and safely for consumers.”
Here’s another analysis that will either put everything in perspective or send you into a spiral of food paranoia.
“DNA is not a food safety hazard,” says Jonathan A. Campbell, Ph.D., a Meat Specialist and Assistant Professor at Penn State University.
Say what now?
“Yes, humans work at meat processing establishments,” he says. “In most cases, a lot of humans are employed in the meat industry, and their DNA is throughout the building.”
Even if they never actually touch the hot dogs, they are touching the processing equipment, to clean and sanitize it. “That could very well leave skin cells or other DNA sources on equipment,” Campbell says. But this is not a “contaminant” but a “non-aesthetic idea of something in our food that the average consumer feels may not be pleasing to them.”
In other words, yes, your hot dogs are going to have a little human DNA on them. And so does most food that was processed, cooked, boxed, or placed on a supermarket shelf by another human being.
“I would imagine if you used the same technology to discover what was on cereal boxes in the grocery store aisle, you might no longer ‘trust’ what is in other food products as well,” Campbell says.
It’s a theory echoed by Gregg Rentfrow, Ph.D., a professor in Animal and Food Science at the University of Kentucky. “Imagine how many apples could test positive after being handled by half the people shopping in the grocery store,” he says.
There’s a concept that’ll haunt you if you think about it too much. Remember the last time you were in the produce section of a grocery store? Did you buy every apple or orange or potato or avocado that you groped or squeezed to make sure it was fresh? Probably not, right?
What percentage of grocery store fruits and vegetables have a little human DNA on them? Likely more than 2%.
And here’s another quandary worth considering. That human DNA the Fresh Lab scientists found on the hotdogs they tested? “It could have come from the person doing the analysis in the lab,” says Rentfrow.
So what does this mean to you? Well, as you hopefully already knew, hot dogs aren’t something you should be eating at every meal. They’re still, as with most things in life, best in moderation.
But the ingredients of hot dogs aren’t nearly as ominous as we’re often led to believe. Do a google search on the topic and you might end up believing that hot dogs contain everything short of snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails.
“U.S. standards and labeling requirements are restrictive,” says Milkowski. “Any organs or edible by-products must be explicitly labeled in the ingredient line and the product name must have a qualifier ‘made with variety meats’.”
Well, what about blood or skin? “The U.S. does not allow blood,” he says. “Skin is not allowed as it has no muscle tissue and thus does not qualify as a muscle trimming. In effect, almost all U.S. hot dogs are made with just meat.”
So, sorry, there aren’t any pig anuses in hot dogs. Or lips.
And despite the genomic tests being done in California crowd-sourced labs, they probably don’t have any people parts. At least not enough to worry about.
Unless you also want to give up eating fruits and vegetables. Or shopping at grocery stores, or buying food that at any point in its production was touched by human hands. Basically, any food that you haven’t personally grown or harvested.
Good luck with that!