From the presence of bile and human hair in pork to the FDA’s guidelines that some rat feces, insect larvae, and mold in food is permissible, many Americans are increasingly wary of the products they put in their body. According to a new report, hamburgers, in particular, may be worthy of extra scrutiny.
“The Hamburger Report” was conducted by an accredited independent research firm, Clear Labs, and screened for “for authenticity, major, medium, and minor substitution [when ingredients are observed in testing but not listed on the label], contamination, gluten, toxigenic fungi and toxic plants, other allergens, and missing ingredients.” In addition, the firm analyzed hamburgers for “nutrition content accuracy, such as calories, carbs, fat, and protein.”
The analysis, intended to provide a broad view of the burger industry to help suppliers improve their products, tested 258 samples from 79 brands and 22 retailers. Those samples included “ground meat, frozen patties, fast food burger products, and veggie burger products.” They were tested withnext-generation genomic sequencing (NGS), and major issues were found to be discrepancant between product labels and actual ingredients, the presence of rat and human DNA, the presence of contaminants, and widespread mislabeling of nutritional information.
Though the report largely praised the beef industry for improving the quality of its products, it noted a number of issues with the current quality of hamburgers in the U.S. Of particular concern was Clear Labs’ analysis of vegetarian burgers. “23.6% of vegetarian products showed some form of discrepancy between product and label, compared to the 13.6% of all samples. We found pervasive issues in food quality and end-product consistency in these non-meat samples,” the report says.
Sixteen, or 6.6 percent of samples had issues with substitution, “when ingredients are observed in our molecular analysis but do not show up on the label.” Fourteen were missing ingredients that were supposed to be present, pursuant to the product’s ingredient label; this deficiency was found exclusively in vegetarian products. In one case, a black bean burger contained no black beans. In another, beef DNA was found in vegetarian patties, an ingredient undoubtedly absent from the label. Over 15 percent of vegetarian products were missing at least one ingredient.
When it came to meat burgers, researchers found multiple cases where meat not listed on the label was found in products. “We found chicken DNA in 1 sample of ground fresh pork, 1 sample of a turkey burger, and 2 samples of beef burger products. We found turkey substitution in 2 samples of ground beef and 1 sample of ground chicken,” they noted.
The report gave a positive review to the beef industry on low levels of hygienic issues in burgers, which occur when “undesirable but generally non-harmful contaminant is introduced into a burger product.” Even so, they found three instances of rat DNA in products — one fast food burger, one vegetarian burger, and one ground meat sample — and one instance of human DNA. The human DNA was found in a frozen vegetarian patty (Clear Labs also found human DNA in hot dogs last year, though the findings were arguably sensationalized).
While their tests could not determine the exact source of the human DNA, they explained it was likely a result of “hair, skin, or fingernail that was accidentally mixed in during the manufacturing process.” They note the FDA says “certain low levels of contamination are acceptable” but the presence of DNA is still a “potential indicator of low quality and speaks to issues of inconsistent adherence to handling protocols.” Last year, whistleblowers from the USDA revealed contaminants, like hair, fingernails, and bile were present in pork products, and though they may not be ‘dangerous,’ it’s doubtful Americans would be comfortable if they knew they could be eating the genetic content of rats and humans.
Though these revolting ingredients may not be particularly harmful, the report more disturbingly found that 11 products, 4.3 percent, contained pathogenic DNA from “microorganisms that can cause human illness.” Four were found in vegetarian products, a finding of heightened concern to the researchers, who point out plant-based foods are generally believed to be safer and cleaner than meat products. Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, which can cause tuberculosis-like symptoms, was the most common pathogen.
The report explains their testing methods could not determine whether the pathogens were alive or dead, and that in meat products, cooking them can often kill the live germs. Nevertheless, the findings are consistent with ongoing trends in the American food supply, including a widespread listeria outbreak currently sweeping the country. As the report notes, “The United States’ economy hemorrhages about $7 billion every year due to food outbreaks. One in six Americans get food poisoning each year, and 3,000 of those cases are fatal.”
A final ingredient found in many of the samples tested, though perhaps not as nauseating as bacteria and DNA, may be one of the greatest causes for concern: calories. According to the report, nearly half of all samples tested had more calories than reported on the label. In 49 percent of samples, there were more carbohydrates than listed. Worse, nearly 81 percent (38 of 47) of the fast food burgers tested contained more calories than reported in the product’s nutritional information.
As the report points out, “these discrepancies are potentially worrisome for customers who make decisions about what to order based on calorie counts and other available nutritional information.” Considering fast food establishments already face ardent criticism about their ingredients, these findings further indict the fast food industry’s standards.
The report stresses that “no outside partners, companies, customers, or other entities had any influence on or contribution to the research and testing, and all sample information will remain anonymous,” though it openly seeks to help industry players improve their product. The findings undoubtedly need further scientific study, but the preliminary results Clear Labs has published are cause for concern.
Perhaps most telling is Clear Labs’ subtle, if not unintentional, commentary on the failures of the FDA to keep food safe for consumers; they stress their goal is to improve the safety and quality in hamburgers — “regardless of whether or not they are acceptable according to FDA guidelines.”