The Great Hot Dog Mystery

Gardein doesn’t make hot dogs.

That may sound like a weird sentence, but keep it in mind. It will become relevant later on.

If you were paying attention to vegan/vegetarian food news back around this time in 2015, you may have seen the headlines: “Report: 10% of vegetarian hot dogs contain meat,” read an article from CNN. Inevitably, vegans and vegetarians were vengefully mocked, with omnivores for some reason relishing the idea that people were unknowingly consuming something that they find unethical. The company also allegedly found human DNA in meat-based hot dogs.

The report was brought to my attention again a few months back, and this time I noticed some peculiarities. I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I am not saying that there is a conspiracy here. But something just doesn’t add up.

The report was produced by a company called ClearLabs, a food safety company that “offers the only automated and intelligent next-generation sequencing platform built for food safety testing.” They offer lots of different complex analyses that I won’t pretend to understand, but the basic idea is pretty cool: they tell you what’s in your food by looking at its DNA.

I wanted to read this report, which focused on hot dogs in general but included vegetarian hot dogs, too, for some reason. This is when things began to get odd.

The CNN article, and many others, provided a link to the report, but it’s gone. If you Google “hot dog report,” you’ll find what appears to be a copy hosted on an Amazon server, not ClearLabs’ website. Why did they try to delete this report from the Internet?

Using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can see what the web page used to be, in October 2016. It appears to be the full “report,” which had a lot to say about vegetarian hot dogs, including that “4 of the 21 vegetarian samples we tested had hygienic issues,” and that two out of 20 vegetarian products contained meat. Worse, 2/3rds of the samples in which they found human DNA were vegetarian products. Overall, they found that 14.4% of the hot dogs and sausages they tested were “problematic.”

As pointed out by Snopes, it’s hard to know how much to trust the report. First, this company was completely unknown until the day this report was release; it seems to have been their way to come out of the closet and make a big splash. Second, there’s no real explanation of their methods or how they drew the conclusions that they did (their techniques may be confidential lest they lose their edge over the competition). In addition, their findings are not peer-reviewed, and therefore run contrary to the rigorous standards of science. Similarly, other labs cannot attempt to replicate their findings; they don’t even list all of the brands they tested.

They do, however, list what brands they approve of. Topping the overall list of best hot dogs is Butterball and McCormick, with Oscar Meyer coming in ninth place. Coming in first place in the “specialty” category: Gardein.

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But wait. Gardein doesn’t make hot dogs. This absolutely perplexed me. How did a company that does not make a certain product get a resounding review for that product?

Maybe Gardein made hot dogs back when the testing was done. Nope — I called Gardein and confirmed that they do not make, and have never made, vegetarian hot dogs. I have no idea how they ended up on this list.

I tried contacting ClearLabs, sending multiple emails and calling them. The emails went unanswered; someone hung up the phone after the tenth ring or so. (In fairness, emails to Gardein’s media department to see if they were aware of the suspicious report also went unanswered.)

Again, I am not a conspiracy theorist. But this got me thinking: What would stop a company from commissioning an ostensibly “independent” food safety report with the goal of tarnishing their competition?

These things undoubtedly happen. A company like Butterball could have easily paid a company like ClearLabs to put them at #1, and trash their competitors’ product. I am not saying that’s what happened, but it’s certainly possible. I have no hypotheses about why Gardein topped their list of specialty hot dogs when they make no such product; it is possible, I suppose, that vegetarian hot dogs are seen as a threat by companies like Butterball, and customers seeking the highest-rated veggie dog out there may, after searching in vain for Gardein’s, buy a Butterball hotdog instead. (I don’t understand why anyone buys hot dogs, vegetarian or otherwise, but that’s a whole other thing.)

Another interesting fact about this whole ordeal — and I assure you I am not donning a tin foil hat here — is that Mike Taylor recently joined ClearLabs’ Board of Directors.

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As noted, he worked for the FDA. Not noted is his time working with Monsanto, an agricultural goliath that people love to hate. While the fear of GMOs is overblown, Monsanto’s predatory and unethical business practices are undeniable. I am not saying that Taylor had any involvement in these things, or that Monsanto had any involvement whatsoever in the report — indeed, I can’t find anything about Monsanto involvement in the meat industry at all — it’s just an interesting fact that I didn’t want to leave out.

So that’s the mystery: a company that does not make a product ended up at the top of a list of manufacturers of that product in a somewhat sketchy report that has since been buried (unsuccessfully). And everyone is keeping their mouth shut. Make of it what you will.

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