Safety matters: Hot dogs

Head to any sporting event in the United States, whether it’s the major leagues or a game for your seven-year-old, and you can find that quintessential food: a hot dog. There are many different ways to cook it, and even more toppings to put on top of it, but what really is it?

This is our third installment in our “Safety Matters” series. We are focusing on different products and how to best prepare them to keep you and your family safe from foodborne pathogens. Be sure to read our ground beef and steak articles too!

What really goes into a hot dog?

A hot dog contains only a few key ingredients: meat, meat fat, cereal filler (something like bread crumbs, oatmeal or flour), egg whites and any spices the manufacturer chooses.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), finished hot dog products “may not contain more than 30% fat or no more than 10% water, or a combination of 40% fat and added water.” Additionally, the products can only include up to 3.5% of non-meat binders (those cereal fillers, or milk products) or 2% isolated soy protein. Hot dogs can also contain “semisolid products made from one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle from livestock” and poultry meat.

Kosher hot dogs are a little different. Following biblical traditions, there are strict kosher laws that ensure only fit and proper foods are consumed. When it comes to hot dogs, livestock must not be “stunned” prior to slaughter, and all meat must first be koshered by first salting, then rinsing the product to remove impurities. All veins and arteries and some fats are removed during processing. Lastly, kosher hot dogs do not contain pork.

Regardless if the product is kosher or not, all ingredients in a hot dog must appear on the label.

Any food safety things I should be aware of?

Once purchased, hot dogs should go immediately into the refrigerator or freezer. If the unopened package does not have a product date, they can be safely kept for two weeks in the refrigerator (opened products last about only one week). For best quality, eat frozen hot dogs between 1–2 months post-freezing.

In order to ensure that all potential foodborne bacteria are killed, cook until 165°F/73.8°C.

What is the anatomy of a hot dog casing?

A casing is the thin skin that can be found around some products.

Originally, hot dogs were made by mixing up internal organs and stuffing it into animal intestines. (Sounds delicious!) The products on your grocery store shelves have two main types of casing: The inedible synthetic casings, or an alternative edible one.*

The edible casing is made from collagen, a protein that is part of connective tissues in humans and some other animals. When cows (for example) are slaughtered, their hide is removed. Once hair is also removed, the hide goes through an extensive process, being chopped and mixed and vacuumed until it is formed into a thin, flat shape. Once it is salted, plasticized with glycerin and dried, the casing is ready.

Labels must say if the casing is made from a different species than that contained in the hot dog, as well as if it was artificially colored.

*Note: Some products are made with natural casings.

How do I know what byproducts are going into my hot dog?

Check the label. All by products, such as the heart, kidney and liver, must be individually labeled on the packaging. The USDA also says that: “’Frankfurter, hot dog, wiener or bologna with byproducts’ or ‘with variety meats’ are made according to the specifications for cooked and/or smoked sausages, except they consist of not less than 15% of one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle meat with raw byproducts.”

Where can I learn more information?

Click here.

Stay tuned for our next installment in the Safety Matters series: Veggies!


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