What’s in a frankfurter? This question is being answered with disturbing detail for consumers who want to know what they are buying. Fraud, low nutritional value and health hazards abound, with varying degrees, in most of the 15 billion frankfurters sold annually.
The hot dog is offering less nutrition and more fat and added water now than its predecessor did 35 years ago during the Depression. In 1937, U.S. Department of Agriculture tests showed frankfurters to average 19 percent fat and 19.6 percent protein. Currently, the percentages average out at 28 percent fat and about 11.7 percent average protein content. A permissive USDA also permits adding 10 percent water and many processors exceed that level while the government keeps looking the other way. New technologies in meat processing have facilitated such adulterations in ways not possible a few decades ago. Most processors find selling more fat, water and other fillers at meat prices difficult to resist. But they do resist fully labeling such ingredients as they tout their “all meat” or “all beef” franks. For a protein buy, the hot dog is a very expensive item. For those advised by their physicians to stay on a low animal fat diet, the hot dog has only deception.
Clearly, something less than the best meat goes into frankfurters. One purpose served by cooked sausage products, such as hot dogs, is to sell the portions of beef cattle, which could not be sold on the open counter. Federal law, always considerate of the industry, allows the inclusion of esophagi, lips, snouts, ears, and other edible offal, in addition to skeletal muscle tissue. The 1967 Congressional hearings produced evidence of the use of “4D” animals (dead, dying, diseased and disabled) inprocessed meat products. The slums receive a disproportionate share of these items.
Just recently, Consumers Union concluded tests of frankfurters which found 40 percent of widely available brands to contain bacteria counts exceeding 10 million per gram, with one reaching 140 million bacteria per gram. This is startling. Food specialists say that putrefaction sets in at the 10 million per gram level. As a guide to how far these companies stray from the law, New York City regulations stipulate a maximum permissible level of 100,000 bacteria per gram–a level itself ten times what some experts recommend. As in previous tests of pork sausage, Consumers Union found insect fragments and rodent remains in about a sixth of the samples, once again underlining the sanitation problems of many meat plants.
The most serious recent development involves scientific concern, based on numerous animal tests conducted in this country and abroad, over the hazards of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. In particular, sodium nitrite, a chemical byproduct of sodium nitrate, is supposed to inhibit the growth of bacteria. As a cosmetic in many meat products, its chief purpose is to keep the meat a reddish color so that an un¬appetizing grey coloring doesn’t set in. Norway has issued a prohibition of the use of nitrite effective at the end of this year. In that country as well as here, scientists are worried about two effects on humans of sodium nitrite. One is on infants who are often fed small slices of hot dogs and other food containing nitrites. These nitrites can cause a particular impairment in the ability of infants’ blood to carry oxygen. The risk increases with the amount of nitrites consumed but since the main purpose of using the ingredient is cosmetic, why should infants assume such risks?
The other hazard affects adults and children alike and is at this time a top priority concern of the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA. Nitrites combine with certain substances called amines in food and the human body to form nitrosamines. Last year, before a House of Representatives Subcommittee investigating food additives, Dr. William Lijinsky, a cancer researcher at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Oak Ridge National Laboratories testified that “Nitrosamines . . . seem to be most effective in eliciting tumors when they applied as small doses over a long period, rather than as large single doses.” He noted that most nitrosamines tested caused cancer in test animals. To emphasize that there is no known safe level for these substances, Dr. Samuel Epstein, a respected toxicologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland called nitrosamines “one of the major public health issues of our time.”
Consumers have petitioned the USDA to ban all cosmetic uses of sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite. Another consumer suit has also been filed in federal court to have the USDA ban the use of the growth promoting synthetic hormone, stilbestrol, in cattle and sheep. Sweden, France, Italy, Australia and seventeen other countries have already banned this cancer-causing hormone.
The Nixon Administration is not prepared to voluntarily respond to any of these pleas for action before the election. The meat industry is still stronger than the consumer movement as far as our national politicians are concerned.
What emerges from any scrutiny of the ubiquitous hot dog, as well as other cooked sausage and ground meat products like hamburgers, is the near total absence of local, state and federal law enforcement. Periodically, USDA inspectors or local officials uncover the most fraudulent or repulsive conditions but little is done. What a shame that this country cannot even enforce important public health standards for such a common food product, quite apart from the reluctance to prevent deception in ingredients and labeling.
What lulls consumers into docile acceptance is not their belief that the government is looking out for them; rather it is the ingenious misuse of modern chemistry which can make hot dogs visually attractive, tasty, tender to chew, and appetizing. The chemical violence to health registers years later when it is most difficult to trace back to the causative agent. That is why full disclosure and prevention must become the politics of the day. Given the facts ascertained by scientists, it should not take many aroused consumers to get their government to impose the required corporate “law and order” to stop a major consumer abuse.