What's Really Inside a Hot Dog?

iStock
iStock

At baseball stadiums, holiday cookouts, and in the dorm rooms of broke college students everywhere, hot dogs have become a staple meal. Each time we wield a wiener, however, rumors and innuendo over the food’s manufacturing integrity come flooding to the surface. Is this tubed meat made from monkey brains? Is there an underground network of hot dog companies that slip in cows’ feet as a filler? Why are hot dogs so nutritionally suspect?

Fortunately, most of your worst fears may be unfounded. Except for the feet. More on that in a moment.

Ever since Upton Sinclair uncovered the misdeeds of the meat industry in the early 1900s, the government has kept a close eye on animal product manufacturing methods. Gone were the sawdust and dog and horse parts that previously made up hot dogs and other highly-processed meats. Companies had to obey strict preparation guidelines that significantly reduced the chances of foodborne illness and forced them into using transparent food labels.

Hot dogs are no exception, though you might have to decipher some of the language to understand what you’re really biting into. Beef, pork, turkey, or chicken dogs originate with “trimmings,” a fanciful word for the discards of meat cuts that are left on the slaughterhouse table. That usually means fatty tissue, sinewy muscle, meat from an animal’s head—not typically a choice cut at Morton’s—and the occasional liver.

This heap of unappetizing gristle is pre-cooked to kill bacteria and transformed into an even more unappetizing meat paste via emulsion, then ground up and pushed through a sieve so it takes on a hamburger-like texture. A number of things could be added at this point, including ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to aid in curing, water, corn syrup, and various spices for taste. Less appetizing ingredients can also include sodium erythorbate, which the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council swears is not actually ground-up earthworms:

"In contrast to a popular urban legend, erythorbate is NOT made from earthworms, though the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports receiving many inquiries about erythorbate’s source. It is speculated that the similarity in the spelling of the words 'erythorbate' and 'earthworms' has led to this confusion."

Got that? No worms. After another puree, the meat paste is pumped into casings to get that familiar tubular shape and fully cooked. After a water rinse, the hot dog has the cellulose casing removed and is packaged for consumption. While not exactly fine dining, it’s all USDA-approved.

More skittish consumers should pay attention to packaging labels. If you see “variety meats” or “meat by-products,” that means the hot dog probably has heart or other organ material in the meat batter. Additives like MSG and nitrates are also common, though all-natural dogs usually skip any objectionable ingredients. If it’s labeled “all beef or “all pork,” you can be assured it's coming from muscle tissue of that animal, not organs.

But those “trimmings”? By definition, they can contain a lot of things that come off an animal, including blood, skin, and even feet. It’s all edible, though some might object to the very idea of eating random cow or pig parts. At least none of it is actual human meat, as some people feared when a Clear Lab food advocacy test in 2015 showed 2 percent of hot dog samples contained human DNA. That was more likely due to human error and trace amounts of hair or fingernails making their way into the batch, not a worker falling into the vat. Enjoy!

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

How Much Is Game of Thrones Author George RR Martin Worth?

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

by Dana Samuel

Unsurprisingly, Game of Thrones took home another Emmy Award earlier this week for Outstanding Drama Series, which marked the series' third time winning the title. Of course, George RR Martin—the author who wrote the books that inspired the TV show, and the series' executive producer—celebrated the victory alongside ​the GoT cast.

For anyone who may be unfamiliar with Martin's work, he is the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is the epic fantasy series that led to the Game of Thrones adaptation. Basically, we really we have him to thank for this seven-year roller coaster we've been on.

At 70 years old (his birthday was yesterday, September 20th), Martin has had a fairly lengthy career as an author, consisting of a number of screenplays and TV pilots before A Song of Ice and Fire, which, ​according to Daily Mail he wrote in the spirit of The Lord of the Rings.

 Cast and crew of Outstanding Drama Series winner 'Game of Thrones' pose in the press room during the 70th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on September 17, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Martin sold the rights to his A Song of Ice and Fire series in 2007, and he truly owes the vast majority of his net worth to the success of his novels and the Game of Thrones TV series. So how much exactly is this acclaimed author worth? According to Daily Mail, Martin makes about $15 million annually from the TV show, and another $10 million from his successful literary works.

According to Celebrity Net Worth, that makes Martin's net worth about $65 million.

Regardless of his millions, Martin still lives a fairly modest life, and it's clear he does everything for his love of writing.

We'd like to extend a personal thank you to Martin for creating one of the most exciting and emotionally jarring storylines we've ever experienced.
We wish Game of Thrones could go ​on for 13 seasons, too!

Why Do Supreme Court Justices Serve for Life?

Alex Wong, Getty Images
Alex Wong, Getty Images

There are few political appointments quite as important as a nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Unlike a cabinet secretary or an ambassador, justices serve for life. In the modern era, that often means more than three decades on the court—thanks to increased lifespans, justices appointed in the next century are expected to sit on the Supreme Court for an average of 35 years, compared to the average of around 16 years that judges served in the past. Because of this shift, some scholars have begun to question whether lifetime appointments are still appropriate, as the definition of “for life” has changed so much since the constitution was written. But why do justices serve for life, anyway?

Well, for one thing, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t exactly specify that justices and the court are in a “’til death do us part” relationship. Article III says that judges (of both the Supreme Court and lower federal courts) “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” So technically, a judge could be removed if they no longer meet the “good behavior” part of the clause, but there are otherwise no limits on their term. In practice, this means they have their seat for life, unless they are impeached and removed by Congress. Only 15 federal judges in U.S. history have ever been impeached by Congress—all lower court judges—and only eight have been removed from office, though some have resigned before their inevitable removal.

The only Supreme Court justice Congress has tried to impeach was Samuel Chase, who was appointed by George Washington in 1796. Chase was an openly partisan Federalist vehemently opposed to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican policies, and he wasn’t afraid to say so, either in his role as a lower court judge or once he was appointed to the Supreme Court. In 1804, the House of Representatives, at then-president Jefferson’s urging, voted to impeach Chase, accusing him, among other things, of promoting his political views from the bench instead of ruling as a non-partisan judge. However, he was acquitted of all counts in the Senate, and went on to serve as a Supreme Court justice until his death in 1811.

The point of giving justices a seat on the bench for the rest of their lives (or, more commonly nowadays, until they decide to retire) is to shield the nation’s highest court from the kind of partisan fighting the Chase impeachment exemplified. The Supreme Court acts as a check against the power of Congress and the president. The lifetime appointment is designed to ensure that the justices are insulated from political pressure and that the court can serve as a truly independent branch of government.

Justices can’t be fired if they make unpopular decisions, in theory allowing them to focus on the law rather than politics. Justices might be nominated because a president sees them as a political or ideological ally, but once they’re on the bench, they can’t be recalled, even if their ideology shifts. Some data, for instance, suggests that many justices actually drift leftward as they age, no doubt infuriating the conservative presidents that appointed them.

The lack of term limits “is the best expedient which can be devised in any government, to secure a steady, upright and impartial administration of the laws,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist No. 78. The judiciary, he believed, “is in continual jeopardy of being overpowered, awed, or influenced by its coordinate branches,” and “nothing can contribute so much to its firmness and independence, as permanency in office.” Without lifetime job security, he argued, judges might feel obligated to bow to the wishes of the president, Congress, or the public, rather than confining their work strictly to questions of the Constitution.

While lifetime appointments may be a longstanding tradition in the U.S., this approach isn’t the norm in other countries. Most other democracies in the world have mandatory retirement ages if not hard-and-fast term limits for high court judges. UK Supreme Court justices face mandatory retirement at age 70 (or 75 if they were appointed before 1995), as do judges on Australia’s High Court. Canadian Supreme Court justices have a mandatory retirement age of 75, while the 31 justices of India’s Supreme Court must retire by the age of 65. Meanwhile, the oldest justice now on the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is currently 85 and kicking. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the oldest justice in U.S. history, retired in 1932 at age 90.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has never had term limits before, there have recently been serious proposals to implement them. Term limits, advocates argue, could combat partisan imbalances on the court. Presidents wouldn’t get to appoint justices purely based on whether someone died while they were in office, and the stakes for political parties nominating a justice would be slightly lower, possibly leading presidents and Congress to compromise more on appointments. One popular suggestion among political analysts and scholars is to impose an 18-year term limit, though critics note that that particular plan does bring up the potential that at some point, a single president could end up appointing the majority of the justices on the court.

In any case, considering such a change would likely require a constitutional amendment, which means it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, being on the Supreme Court will continue to be a lifetime commitment.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER