Oscar Mayer wants to sell you a cleaner hot dog

Do you like yours with nitrates?
Do you like yours with nitrates?
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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In the last few years, the world’s largest food companies have been busily tinkering with the recipes of many of their biggest name brands. Nestlé swapped out ingredients in its sprawling portfolio of pizzas. Pepsi tried reworking its signature soda. General Mills has been rejiggering many of its breakfast cereals—right down to the marshmallows.

Not to be outdone, Oscar-Mayer announced this week that it’s giving hot dogs a makeover. The Kraft-Heinz-owned company says it will dispatch six of its iconic Wienermobile vehicles across America to spread the word: The company has ditched added nitrates and nitrites (except those in celery juice), and artificial preservatives. “We did this without changing the price to our consumers,” a company statement says.

In addition to sending Wienermobiles rolling into several American cities, the company is also launching an ad campaign to tell consumers about the changes.

Of course, try as Oscar-Mayer might to give hot dogs a fresh face, it’s also working against perceptions of how the sausage is made—specifically, the notion that the meat that’s stuffed into those cellulose sausage casings is unwanted remnants from the processing of beef, pork, and chicken products.

That’s not wrong. Hot dog production is a highly industrialized process that grinds together beef, pork, and chicken “trimmings” into a paste. That paste is then mixed with water, corn syrup, spices, and salt—then squeezed into casings, packaged, and shipped to supermarkets.

It may not be pretty, but it hasn’t put many Americans off hot dogs. According to 2016 data, close to a billion pounds of hot dogs were sold at retail stores. That amounts to more than $2.4 billion in retail sales, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, a subsidiary of the North American Meat Institute.

Still, data from Euromonitor show that sales of hot dogs shrank in 2016, perhaps a response to a growing body of evidence from scientists around the globe that has connected processed meat to cancer.