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There’s Meat In Veggie Dogs, Pork In Turkey Dogs, And Human DNA In Everything

Trust us, you probably don’t want to know how the sausage gets made.

That veggie hot dog you’re about to eat might actually have pork inside, and less than half the protein listed on the label.

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That’s according to a new DNA sequencing platform called Clear Food, which aims to analyze exactly what’s in the food on supermarket shelves. That includes double checking ingredients and nutritional labels, and also analyzing things that may not be on the label, such as hormones, pesticides, or antibiotics.

The bottom line of the company’s results is unsettling. There’s a good chance the nutrition label on a package doesn’t reflect what you’re eating, whether it’s a hot dog or a cookie.

“We really saw the food industry as sort of being a black box, and that consumers were having to go with sort of blind trust in order to make their food purchase decisions,” says Clear Labs co-founder Mahni Ghorashi. “As we started testing more and more of the U.S. food supply, we’re seeing between a 10% to 15% discrepancy rate between what food items are actually claiming to be versus their labels and packaging, versus the reality of their molecular content.”

Clear Labs first launched as a service for manufacturers and retailers to test their own products. In the past, tests would have had to look for specific snippets of DNA, but as sequencing technologies have improved, now it’s easier to analyze the entire contents of a sample.

With the new consumer site, the company plans to tell the story of what’s behind the label. Each food gets a “Clear Score”–the score is higher the more closely the actual food matches what the nutrition label says.

The first report looked at 345 samples of hot dogs and sausages from 75 different brands. “It’s sort of the ultimate mystery meat,” he says. “We did it a little bit tongue in cheek–you know the old saying nobody wants to know how the hot dog is made.”

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In total, around 14% of the products had some sort of issue–some vegetarian products contained meat, some supposedly pork-free sausages had pork, and others were unhygienic, with traces of human DNA. Price didn’t always correlate with quality. Some of the most accurate labels belonged to some of the cheapest products.

In a Kickstarter campaign, Clear Labs hopes to raise $100,000 to create 10 more comprehensive reports for the new platform. While the technology is still expensive–each report costs $10,000 to produce–as the price comes down, the company ultimately hopes to scale to create a comprehensive database.

“We wanted to start to democratize the technology to break it out of the walls of industry and academia and put it in the hands of consumers,” Ghorashi says.

Less than a decade from now, it might be in your hands. “We’re probably about five to seven years away from mobile sequencing technologies being able to be integrated with a smartphone so that consumers can be able to do this type of analysis at the grocery store, at a restaurant, at home,” he says. “So this technology wave is coming. It’s inevitable.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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