Your Burger Has More Than Just Beef DNA

May 12th 2016

Alex Mierjeski

Hamburgers generally don't contain any actual ham — unless, apparently, it's rat ham.

According to a new "Hamburger Report" from the food analytics start up Clear Labs, some burger chains up and down the West Coast — and indeed across the country — had traces of rat and human DNA in their food.

The unnerving statistic covered 258 samples across 79 brands and 22 retailers, though Clear Labs didn't specify from which ones the offending samples came. However, there were only a small handful — three cases of rat DNA, one case of human — of burgers with improper DNA. Other oddities included traces of meat in vegetarian products, the presence of pathogenic DNA, and at least one black bean burger with no black beans.

Clear Labs burger report

What does this all mean?

For one thing, Clear Labs said that the findings were likely to square with regulatory food safety measures. "What many consumers don't know is that some amounts of human and rat DNA may fall within an acceptable regulatory range," the company said.

But for all the shock and horror of the headline, researchers explain that the results are more indicative of uncleanly food preparation — not the presence of actual rat or human meat in your burger. In fact, the last time Clear Labs released a similar report — the Hot Dog Report — the company's founder clarified the findings to The New York Times.

"Its pretty unlikely that the human DNA piece is actually harmful to consumer health," Mahni Ghorashi told The Times, noting that tiny particles of hair, nails, or skin could swing results. "We consider it more of a hygienic issue that degrades the quality of the food."

What's more, The Times noted in its piece about the Hot Dog Report is that while it was thoroughly researched, the report was at least in part a marketing push to attract attention to Clear Labs' gene-sequencing technology.

For that reason, some have voiced skepticism about the veracity of reports from Clear Labs and other, similar food analytics start ups. Disconcerting statements from Silicon Valley investors don't necessarily help, either. As one investor in a similar company called Beyond Meat said of its marketing strategy: "Grow the brand as big as you can, like a fake it till you make it type of thing, and then back into it with a stellar product."

Overall, the Clear Labs' report seemed to find less surprising — but perhaps more offensive — burger ingredient mismatches: gaps in reported nutritional content, pork DNA in beef patties, and beef DNA in lamb, bison, and chicken patties.

Either way you look at it, your burger's probably giving you more than you bargained for.