Editors love to ‘tweak’ the headlines they attach to otherwise less-than-exciting articles, so people will pay attention. But when they twist reality 180 degrees, the results can be damaging.
It was one of those scientific journal articles whose very title triggers instant eye glaze: “Double Gene Targeting Multiplex Polymerase Chain Reaction-Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Assay Discriminates Beef, Buffalo, and Pork Substitution in Frankfurter Products.”
What that actually means, I couldn’t explain, but here’s how Forbes teed it up in its online science section: “New Mystery Meat DNA Test Reveals What’s In Your Hot Dog.”
That slant is totally unfair — and inaccurate — of course, implying as it does that “what” is in your hot dog is, in fact, a “mystery.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“People often joke that sausages such as hot dogs are made from ‘mystery meat,’ ” the article began. “But the composition of processed food isn’t always a laughing matter, as consuming certain foods can go against a person’s cultural or religious beliefs. Indian people avoid beef because cows are considered sacred, for instance, whereas Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork.”
Those statements are true enough, but they still don’t connect with the “what’s in your hot dog?” accusation implied by Forbes’ reference to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study noted above.
And as it turns out, the new test referenced in the article was developed overseas at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city famous for the world’s tallest twin skyscrapers, the Petronas Towers that have been featured in several major movies (1999’s caper flick “Entrapment” and 2016’s “Independence Day Resurgence”), television shows (Fox’s “24”) and even video games (“Hitman 2: Silent Assassin”).
Several paragraphs after the “find out what’s really in your hot dog” teaser, readers — if they made it that far — finally get to the point the story is trying to make: “Unscrupulous sausage makers sometimes substitute authentic ingredients for cheaper alternatives.”
Wait — did that sentence suggest that manufacturers, unscrupulous or not, would substitute “authentic ingredients” for cheaper ones?
Has that ever happened in the history of meat product adulteration?
Apparently so — if we’re talking about Malaysia, that is.
If a Malaysian processor did substitute different species in a hot dog formulation, such a switch could be detected with the new Double Gene Targeting Multiplex Polymerase Chain Reaction-Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism Assay, by testing samples for specific DNA markers characteristic of particular species.
The advantage of the new test, as explained in the article, is that the genetic markers being targeted stay stable even under extreme conditions, such as boiling or pressure cooking. Conventional tests currently rely on identification of a single lengthy DNA sequence that tends to become denatured and break down at food processing temperatures.
That, as any food-science major knows, can lead to false negative test results.
To confirm the validity of their new test, the University of Malaya researchers checked for pork, beef and buffalo DNA in 20 different types of sausages sold in Malaysian markets, and perhaps unsurprisingly, found that 100% of the samples that supposedly contained “beef” also contained buffalo meat, although the tests also confirmed a high level of purity with regard to pork ingredients.
By the way, the “buffalo” being referenced isn’t bison meat, but rather meat from water buffalo, an Asian-origin species traditionally used as draft animals but lately the focus of breeding and management initiatives aimed at improving carcass quality and consistently.
According to the Turkey Creek Buffalo Meat company, an Arkansas-based importer-distributor, water buffalo is grassfed and “naturally raised without growth stimulates and antibiotics.” The meat is marketed as a healthier alternative to beef, as analysis indicates that it is leaner and lower in cholesterol content and has fewer calories and more protein per serving than poultry and many species of fish.
If potential customers bite on the “buffalo meat” designation, and aren’t hung up on the idea of eating water buffalo, the product’s nutritional profile might allow development of a niche market. Turkey Creek even markets a line of gourmet Italian cheeses made from water buffalo milk.
But all that is a sideline to the problem created by Forbes editors looking for an angle to “sell” their story. As the article concluded, “This . . . new DNA test could reveal some hot dog ingredients that you’d prefer remained a mystery.”
Seriously? The odds that anyone has ever eaten a hot dog made in North America that was “adulterated” with a more expensive meat ingredient replacing a less expensive one are even longer than the chances that water buffalo will become the next foodie fad.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator