Judges and chefs relish the opportunity to define “hot dog”

We settle the raging hot dog debates.
We settle the raging hot dog debates.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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The hot dog has been much considered in American law. In fact, the skinny sausage eaten hugged in a bun—often on the run—helped lead to the first US food-safety regulations after Upton Sinclair’s 1906 report on meat industry horrors in The Jungle. 

Back in the day, sausages were made from meat bits, often decayed, including horse and dog parts, according to Famous Nathan, a 2016 book on the history of the eponymous Brooklyn hot dog purveyor and his industry. Early 20th century meat-packers added sawdust and other fillers, preserving frankfurters with formaldehyde.

Sinclair’s frank account led the US government to cut the baloney. The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to prevent “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”

Today, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines frankfurters specifically as follows:

Frankfurters (aka, hot dogs, wieners, or bologna) are cooked and/or smoked sausages according to the Federal standards of identity. Federal standards of identity describe the requirements for processors to follow in formulating and marketing meat, poultry, and egg products….

The standard also requires that they be comminuted (reduced to minute particles), semisolid products made from one or more kinds of raw skeletal muscle from livestock (like beef or pork), and may contain poultry meat. Smoking and curing ingredients contribute to flavor, color, and preservation of the product. They are link-shaped and come in all sizes—short, long, thin, and chubby.

In the resolution of a recent legal wiener war, however, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals had a slightly different take. On July 16, the court issued its opinion in Parks LLC v. Tyson Foods, makers of “Parks” hot dogs and “Park’s Finest” hot dogs respectively. The court affirmed that Tyson’s use of “Park’s Finest” didn’t violate trademark law. Given the extensive discussion of hot dogs in this legal beef, judge Kent Jordan noted:

Though it may distress the cognoscenti, we use the terms “frankfurters,” “franks,” and “hot dogs,” as synonyms. Not so with the term “sausage,” which we use to denote something akin to but arguably different from hot dogs.

The differences between a hot dog and a sausage, say the cognoscenti, are the production process and flavors. California-based Chico Locker and Sausage Company explains on its blog that hot dogs are a subset of the sausage but the meat used for franks are ground finer and emulsified. Hot dog recipes tend to use far fewer spices than other sausages. According to the blog post: “There are, in fact, standard hot dog seasonings (usually containing salt, garlic, and paprika). A typical hot dog flavor profile tends to be mild, not containing heavy pepper or other added ingredients.”

California’s Health and Safety Code doesn’t bother with fine distinctions. From its legal perspective, anything you could stick in a bun pretty much fits the frankfurter description. An expansive definition of “hot dog” was proposed in 2012 to address concerns about street vending inspection standards. Hot dogs come cooked as the code makes clear, distinguishing the dog from raw meat. In 2013, the definition was added to the state’s food safety code. It provides the following:

“Hot dog” means a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in a casing, that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.

This definition, and those provided by sausage cognoscenti, bureaucrats, and judges, should settle the long-raging pop culture debate over whether a hot dog is necessarily a sandwich. While a sandwich can contain meat between bread, and a hot dog is most definitely that, the dog is not defined by its bun. Rather, the bun enhances the sausage that follows the hot dog process.