Market microbial food safety instead of fear: Hot dogs do not contain human meat

The eye-catching headlines on the new findings started coming in waves. “Report: Human DNA Found in Hot Dogs” said USA Today, in a typical example. bizarre information came from a single document released on Oct. 17 by the consumer marketing arm of a company called Clear Labs, which had found traces of human DNA in 2 percent of the products sampled.

But don’t worry: There’s no evidence that hot-dog lovers are unwitting cannibals. It’s more a matter of hygiene in food production. The tiniest particles of hair, nails and skin could show up in these tests.

Even so, an executive at the company interviewed last week was unapologetic about the attention-grabbing finding.

“Its pretty unlikely that the human DNA piece is actually harmful to consumer health,” said Mahni Ghorashi, a Clear Labs founder. “We consider it more of a hygienic issue that degrades the quality of the food.”

Snopes, the rumor-debunking site, was rather more harsh, labeling the information “unproven.”

Consumers should brace themselves for more buzzworthy headlines as genome sequencing gets cheaper and Silicon Valley companies like Clear Labs, Beyond Meat and Soylent try to disrupt eating itself.

The Clear Labs story was an effort to bring marketing attention to the company’s use of gene-sequencing technology, first pioneered by the Human Genome Project. Looking at regions of the genome called bar code regions, the company identifies traces of animal species in food samples, including those that are not supposed to be there. The Hot Dog Report did contain significant findings, notably that pork had been substituted for chicken and turkey in 3 percent of samples, and that 10 percent of vegetarian products contained real meat.

But it was the human DNA detail that took off on social media.

The focus on marketing by food start-ups should not be surprising. While the technology is getting faster and cheaper, start-ups still have to attract investors.

Genetic testing: Sure that’s a hot dog

In 2013, European governments launched a massive investigation after food-safety agencies discovered that an alarming number of products advertised as beef were actually horsemeat.

animal-house-horse1In China last year, Wal-Mart recalled its “Five Spice” donkey-meat snacks after they were found to be adulterated with fox meat. In the U.S., Americans spend around $5.57 billion a year on sausages—but up to 14 percent of the time, the type of meat may not match what’s advertised on the package.

That last statistic comes from Clear Labs, a startup that aims to quite literally see how the sausage gets made. The company, which uses DNA sequencing to analyze the contents of food, claims its molecular database of around 10,000 items is the largest in the world—a tool it plans to use to fight food fraud, which currently affects an estimated 10 percent of the world’s commercial food supply. Earlier this month, it launched a Kickstarter campaign for its new consumer initiative Clear Food, a project to analyze and publish a report on a particular food category each month (backers will get to vote on the category they’d like Clear Labs to tackle next). Each product included in the report will receive a score based on how closely the label matches the content.

According to Martin Wiedmann, a professor of food safety at Cornell University, the FDA primarily focuses its efforts on keeping food uncontaminated, rather than the accuracy of labeling.

“The FDA does not have unlimited resources, but to be honest, I’d rather the FDA do more work on food safety than making sure that red snapper doesn’t happen to be tilapia,” he said. “I think private industry will play a very, very important role in this issue.”

So does Clear Labs. The company was founded in 2013 by Sasan Amini and Ghorashi in 2013, both of whom left their jobs at genomics companies to apply DNA-testing technologies to the food industry.  The process is similar to the genomic analysis used in clinical trials to personalize cancer treatments—when a hot-dog package proclaims the contents to be “all beef,” Clear Labs’ analysis can compare the molecular makeup of that hot dog against the molecular signature of beef, stored in the database, to see if it’s true. The company says it can also determine whether the label’s nutritional claims are valid.

“Once we started to test the U.S. food supply in a rigorous fashion, we started to see a 10-15 percent discrepancy rate between product claims and actual molecular content of the food,” Ghorashi said.

In the Clear Foods initiative’s report on hot dogs and sausages, the company analyzed 345 samples across 75 brands and 10 retailers, and found that 14.4 percent of the products tested were “problematic in some way.”

Around 3 percent of the samples found pork where it shouldn’t have been, most often in meats labeled as chicken or turkey, and around 10 percent of the vegetarian products contained meat. Vegetarian products seemed to have the most problems across the board: Four of the 21 vegetarian samples had hygienic issues (accounting for two-thirds of the hygienic issues found in the report), and many vegetarian labels exaggerated the protein content by up to 2.5 times the actual amount.

“We expected to find some deviations because it is a complex supply chain,” Ghorashi said, “but this is also about intentional adulteration for economic gain, which is basically fraud.”

Weidmann said that while molecular sequencing of food can inject more transparency into the food system, there are also significant challenges to consider. For example, DNA testing often yields false positives. And as tests have become more sensitive, cross-contamination poses a great risk to the results.