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.
This 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.