Hot dogs have been synonymous with summer for as long as we can remember and probably well before that. If there's a BBQ happening, hot dogs are undoubtedly also going to be on the menu. But, while many love the classic American grub, hot dogs can also bring up some hot button conversations (and, we don't just mean whether or not they count as a sandwich). There are also a lot of myths and assumptions about what actually goes in a hot dog. So, we set out to set the record straight and answer the burning question: What really makes up a hot dog?
In reality, most hotdogs you find at a grocery store, and especially the national brands, don't contain anything close to organs. According to the USDA, hotdogs must be made of meat or poultry, and can contain more than one kind of meat. They also must be mostly made from "raw skeletal muscle." Any hot dogs that contain organs, what the USDA lovingly refers to as "byproducts and variety meats" must be labelled by ingredient. If a hotdog is labelled "all beef" or "all pork," it also must be made from 100% muscle tissue of that animal. Other ingredients are included for preserving and flavoring the links, but that can be no more than 3.5% of the sausage, not including added water.
Glancing at a local grocery store's offering, it's hard to find a single hotdog with organ meat in it, but there is something surprising: hotdogs not advertised as "all-beef" are often a mix of chicken and pork, with chicken being the first ingredient. Whether that matters to you can come down to taste.
The USDA definition of a hotdog goes on to say that the meat in a hotdog, whatever its source, must be "comminuted (reduced to minute particles)." How that hotdog filler gets to be comminuted varies, though one common method is mechanically separated meat. Both chicken and pork can be mechanically separated, which is about as attractive as it sounds. There is no limit to how much mechanically separated chicken can be in your hotdog, though there is a limit to how much mechanically separated pork can be involved — the USDA caps that at 20%. Because of fears of mad cow disease, mechanically separated beef is not considered safe for human consumption, so, by buying all-beef, you'll be avoiding mechanically separated meat altogether.
So, now that you know the full story, go forth and enjoy your hotdogs, mechanically separated or not. And just remember, if you want to be the self-appointed know-it-all at your next cookout, share your knowledge about hot dog ingredient labeling or just enjoy your meal. The decision is completely up to you.