Using next-generation genomic sequencing—a more sensitive and robust form of genetic analysis than traditional methods—the scientists at Clear Labs sampled 258 burgers from 79 brands and 22 retailers and analyzed them for food safety and quality.
“We saw fairly significant issues, such as substitution and missing ingredients or pathogens in about 14 percent of the overall sample,” Mahni Ghorashi, co-founder of Clear Labs told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “We were quite surprised by the high rates of problems in vegetarian products; they had about twice as many problems [compared to the meat products tested.]”
For example, 23 percent of vegetarian products had “some form of discrepancy between product and label,” the report read. One black bean burger had no black beans—instead it was composed of all the other ingredients that go into a black bean burger.
Some vegetarian products were also missing other ingredients that were listed on the label. Two of them contained trace amounts of beef DNA as well. Four of the 11 total samples containing DNA from pathogenic bacteria were vegetarian, as well.
“Typically you think of vegetarian alternatives as safer than their meat counterparts, so this was illuminating for us,” Ghorashi said.
Sarah Taber, a food safety consultant was less surprised.
“The other thing is that the sustainable food biz [which includes vegetarian products] can be really arrogant about food safety,” Taber told the Daily Dot in an email. “A lot of these companies do a big marketing song and dance about how their food is clean but very little follow-through to make sure it actually is.”
She cited Chipotle’s recent struggles with food-borne diseases as an example. But Taber added that in her work in sustainable food sectors mainly centered on “literally trying to sell the sustainable food sector on the value of food safety,” because right now, the food safety culture in those sectors simply “isn’t there.”
Taber cited a few reasons for this problem. “Facilities that handle meat are required by law to have personnel training, a certain quality of equipment,” and a HACCP plan, which is a regulatory tool to help companies cover their food safety bases. It was originally developed by Pillsbury for the Apollo program “so the astronauts didn’t puke/diarrhea in space,” Taber said.
“If meat facilities don’t do it right the USDA and/or FDA have authority to shut them right down, and the beef industry’s gotten beat up so bad in the last 25 years that they’re actually paying attention to what they do,” Taber added. “On the other hand, people handling vegetarian products aren’t supervised like that. They’re more free to just do whatever. It kinda shows in the test results, doesn’t it?”
Taber said she hopes this report will help the companies that make vegetarian products enact more oversight to keep their products safer and more consistent.
For consumers, it’s a little less clear what to make of the data.
Clear Labs kept all the brands of the burgers anonymous, in part because they didn’t have enough samples of any one brand to make a definitive overall statement about the quality and safety of that particular brand.
“The way you look at these data is: informational snapshots of how the overall quality actually looks,” Sasan Amini, co-founder and CEO of Clear Labs said in a phone interview. “We just want to inform the industry and the consumers that when you’re thinking about the burger category, these are the quality and safety issues you might run into.”
The report highlights the importance of proper cooking, as well. Clear Labs only tested for the presence of pathogenic DNA, but those tests don’t determine if the DNA belongs to a living or dead organism, Ghorashi said. To be safe, it’s important consumers always cook their food thoroughly—even, and perhaps especially, the vegetarian products.