Veggie burger products ‘problematic’ in Clear Labs’ analysis

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Clear Labs report turns attention to burger products

Related tags Bacteria Microbiology Pathogen

Clear Labs has found rat and human DNA, substitution and pathogens in its latest round of testing with vegetable burger products particularly problematic.

The findings were from 258 samples of 79 brands and 22 retailers in Northern California from February to April this year.

A total of 13.6% had problems with substitution, hygienic issues and pathogenic contamination. Three cases of rat DNA and one result of human DNA were also reported.

Mahni Ghorashi, Clear Labs co-founder, said the platform doesn’t differentiate between live and dead and the count which is essential for following-up such issues.

“We surfaced this to put a flag to industry that there are other strains of pathogenic bacteria that are not screened for with a PCR-based test and pathogens can slip through,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.

“Clear Labs is not a mandatory reporter, we have a relationship with the FDA but often our findings do not require mandatory reporting. We reserve the right to contact manufacturers, retailers, and regulatory bodies on a case-by-case basis.”

They found two cases of meat in vegetarian products, one black bean burger with no black beans and 4.3% (11 products) contained pathogenic DNA.

Yersinia pseudotuberculosis, Yersinia enterocolitica, Aeromonas hydrophila, Clostridium perfringens, Klebsiella pneumoniae and E. coli were found but the test did not determine if the organisms were dead or alive.

Veg products problem

People have different expectations on how to handle veggie and meat products, said Ghorashi.

“The manufacturing process can be more complex with more ingredients coming into contact with soil. We wash our hands before and after handling raw meat, we know to use separate knives and cutting boards when handling raw meat, and we know to cook meat to a certain temperature.

“The real issue here is one about expectations and behavior. Even though the vast majority of veggie brands warn that their foods have to be fully cooked, we’re not as careful handling these products as we are when handling raw meat.”

Looking at just vegetarian products, of 89 items sampled, 23.6% were problematic with 14 samples missing ingredients, four out of 11 contained pathogens, one had human DNA and another sample with rat DNA.

Clear Labs said the test cannot identify the source of the DNA and some amounts may fall within the acceptable regulatory range.

Ghorashi said problematic vegetable samples reflected what they found in the previous hot dog and turkey reports.

Three things jumped out. One was that we were surprised at the high issue rate of vegetable burger products, the trace of meat in two veg products is obviously unacceptable and the black bean burger that didn’t contain black beans is troubling for the consumer who goes to these items thinking they are a lower risk category,” ​he said.

“We were pleasantly surprised with the few cases in the fast food burger category. But there was a significant deviation in nutritional claims [between the menu and the product] with more calories and fat than was advertised.

“Thirdly, overall there was a low rate of severe problems in what are high risk categories such as ground meat.”

Growth and adoption of NGS

Clear Labs used next-generation genomic sequencing (NGS), to screen for authenticity, substitution, contamination, gluten and other allergens, and missing ingredients.

They also examined products for nutrition-content accuracy, such as calories, carbs, fat, and protein.

Substitution was found in 16 products: beef in five samples, chicken in four, turkey in three, pork in two, rye in two and sunchoke in one that were not supposed to contain such ingredients.

Rye has high gluten content, which could be problematic for consumers with gluten intolerances and allergies. It is also a cheap filler, degrading product quality.

Ghorashi said with NGS technology it can get more precise information on samples and move towards a no tolerance policy instead of the current standard where low contamination levels could be acceptable.

“The cost of NGS has fallen dramatically and it continues to do so. It is only a matter of time before it replaces legacy-based testing. The forward thinking brands we work with should be applauded for consumer transparency which is essential for the brand,” ​he said.

“As with any disruptive technology, there are early adopters and visionary brands that understand the value and lead the way.

“You will also have late adopters, which is common in technology roll-out, who are more dubious and attached to legacy testing. However, this is an inevitable progression as technology continuously gets better, faster, and cheaper.”

Expert reaction

Dr Michael Doyle, regents professor of food microbiology, director, Center for Food Safety, Department of Food Science & Technology, University of Georgia, said overall the technology is going to be of great benefit to detect adulteration or indicate presence of ingredients not on the label.

“The weakness as I see it is in the area of foodborne pathogen detection. The biggest concern, and they mention this in the report, is that the method cannot differentiate between live and dead cells," ​he said.

“Finding the DNA of Salmonella​ or E.coli​ from a dead cell is not very helpful. Secondly, the pathogens they find, such as Yersinia enterocolitica​ and Aeromonas hydrophila​ are not of common concern in foods.

“In terms of Clostridium perfrigens​ you usually need to have millions of cells in the food in order to cause illness. And it’s not uncommon to find low levels in meats, which contain some C. perfringens​ naturally. The cooking process will kill most pathogens.”

Dr Doyle said the technology could be used for determining species adulteration of meats, putting beef in lieu of bison for example. 

“This could keep the suppliers honest in terms of the product they supply. The test could also be of value in detecting allergens that are not mentioned on the label. The caveat again is that the test could be too sensitive and detect levels that are not relevant. Whether it is detecting pathogens, substitutions or any other contamination, the results will have to be further verified."

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