From rat DNA to illness-causing pathogens, a molecular analysis of burgers has found there might be more in that patty than you bargained for. Thinking meatless options offer a healthier alternative? Think again. According to this study, veggie burgers are often more problematic than their meaty counterparts.
A rise in meat prices has translated into overall increased spending on beef and flat meat sales over the past five years, which means people are buying less but paying more. And then there are the reports that tout the benefits of going meat-less, which have led some consumers to look for healthier alternatives.
But just how healthy are those alternatives? And how hygienic are their meaty brethren? Food analytics company Clear Labs tested 258 burger samples across a wide spectrum of 79 brands and 22 retailers, examining veggie and meat patties, some of them frozen, some fresh, some from fast-food drive-thrus, and others from higher-end restaurants (all in California). Clear Labs co-founder Mahni Ghorashi says that issues of hygiene and contamination were "fairly evenly distributed" among the samples, regardless of price.
"One piece of good news that came out of [the study] was that the rate of serious problems was lower than we anticipated in such a high-risk category," says Clar Labs co-founder Ghorashi.
Of course, the "serious problems" were still there in some cases. "For starters, we saw about 14 percent of the samples had contamination issues from product substitution, missing ingredients, pathogens, or hygienic issues," says Ghorashi. The study suggests "the beef industry as a whole has benefited from stringent regulation and aggressive testing requirements."
But perhaps more surprising than the low rate of problems with beef burgers was the high rate of problems with meat-free alternatives. While 13.6 percent of all samples were "problematic in some way," 23.6 percent of vegetarian products had pervasive food quality issues.
"Consumers tend to move to veggie burgers as a safer alternative but in reality there are potentially high risks in that category," says Ghorashi, who notes the veggie burgers sampled had "nearly twice" as many issues as their meat counterparts. "In that category we found things like [two instances of] beef in veggie burgers, and a black bean burger that had no black beans in it whatsoever."
The study found substitutions (ingredients observed in a molecular analysis, but not listed on the ingredients label) in 16 products overall: beef DNA was found in samples of ground lamb, chicken, and bison, while pork DNA was found in ground beef and in a beef patty (particularly troubling for those who shun pork for religious reasons). Rye, which contains gluten and is typically used as a cheap filler, was found in a sample of frozen chicken sliders and a vegetarian burger.
Of the 14 samples missing ingredients listed on the label (like that black bean burger with no black beans), all were vegetarian products. Approximately 4.3 percent of all products tested contained pathogens, which have the potential to lead to food poisoning outbreaks. Four of the pathogen-containing samples were vegetarian products, one of which tested positive for E. coli. Tests could not determine, however, if that particular strain was pathogenic.
And then there's the rat DNA. The analysis found three cases of rat DNA, one of which was in veggie burgers (the others were in ground beef and in a fast-food burger). As gross as it sounds, it's actually not that out-of-the-ordinary. In fact, a certain amount of contaminants are sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration, and could come about as a result of rodents in the plant where food is packaged.
"With any kind of burger made from ground meat — or even ground and processed vegetables — part of the issue is the processing," says Shelley Feist, Executive Director of Temperature Partnership for Food Safety. "Consuming [rat DNA] is probably not that dangerous for you, in and of itself."
Ensuring the burger (and the rat DNA) is properly cooked is the most important step to ward off illness. "Safe cooking is the one thing that's in the control of the consumer — as long as you cook it properly, you likely won't get sick because you'd at least be eating cooked rat DNA," says Feist. "The element might still be in the food, but the bacteria and pathogens will be killed."
Surprisingly, most of the fast-food burgers tested by Clear Labs fared quite well, at least when it came to issues of hygiene or contamination. "[The fast-food category's] biggest problem was in nutrition," says Ghorashi. "There is a significant delta between the amount of calories, fat, and carbs you thought you were consuming, and the amounts actually in the burgers."
The company won't name names, so whether or not you've recently ingested a rat DNA-laden, bean-free, black bean burger is unclear. "Our goal is not to say who's bad or who is good — it's to help the industry understand where vulnerabilities lie," says Ghorashi.
Feist says even pathogens can be killed, as long as proper cooking techniques are employed. "Temperature is a kill-step for pathogens in food, which is why it's so important to not just visually check and see if something is cooked, but take the temperature of it, as well." For ground beef and pork, Feist says temperatures should reach 160 degrees (for poultry or veggie burgers, she recommends 165 degrees).
Last year, Clear Labs released the findings of a similar study on hot dogs, which also found high rates of contamination among vegetarian products.