Part 2 of "Hey Chris, what are we eating?"; focusing on U.S. Cellular Field hot dogs

Part 2 of "Hey Chris, what are we eating?"; focusing on U.S. Cellular Field hot dogs
Unsurprisingly, a Chicago newspaper has multiple stock images of hot dogs // Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune

When we last left Chris Lamberti, he had investigated the reputation of Vienna Beef, the local supplier for all U.S. Cellular Field hot dogs.  He found a company with a fairly admirable track record, but since he was blessed/cursed with more free time, Chris decided to delve deeper...

Chris, if Vienna Beef is reputable, is it simply a case that other, more national beef suppliers are on a lower tier for quality?  Where do the cracks typically appear?

The challenging part is finding out where the cattle are raised and slaughtered before they get to the Vienna Beef plant in Chicago.  Describing suppliers as a “carefully selected group” does not say anything about the criteria by which they are selected.  How cattle are harvested quickly for market has been the subject of much debate in recent years.

Saying the beef is USDA-inspected does not mean much.  On the whole, the meat industry is trending toward less government oversight.  USDA standards do not preclude the use of antibiotics and synthetic hormones in cattle production.  And as we have seen in recent years, USDA inspected beef has been recalled because of E. coli contamination.

Is this something Vienna could take a more active role in ensuring?  Is there evidence they've been content to ignore it?

This is not a Vienna Beef problem.  The same criticism could be made of the steak you buy at the supermarket.  And it’s very possible, maybe even likely, that the beef used to make Vienna Beef hot dogs is better than the beef you buy at the store.

For one, Vienna Beef franks are made from bull meat, which from what I’ve read contains less hormones than cow or steer meat.  Moreover, intuitively I feel that Vienna Beef is pretty conscious about the quality of their product, and in the tug of war that often occurs between quality and price, Vienna is more concerned about the former than some other food companies.

Lastly, I can tell you for a fact that Vienna Beef hot dogs contain no “pink slime”!; the evil acid and ammonia treated beef-tissue goo used as filler in much of the ground beef that we buy.

Vienna comes out of this sounding almost admirable

Eh, Vienna Beef isn’t above a little gamesmanship.  Obviously, it’s not in their interest to focus on the meat production controversy in this country.  They also make the claim on their website that “All Vienna Beef franks and sausages are made from our original family recipes dating back to 1893.”

That sounds like something that cannot--nor would I want it to--be true

Something in some industry statute allows Vienna Beef to make this claim, but I don’t think they were mixing in “sodium erythorbate” in the late-nineteenth century.  And the “natural flavorings” (not to mention the “coloring”) are to my knowledge made from chemicals in laboratories.

Is there a less technical way to break down what the basic hot dog contains?

Basically, your Vienna Beef hot dog is made from beef, water, salt, and a bunch of additives chemically derived from corn.

Why does it always come back to corn?

Corn is a government subsidized crop that comes on the cheap, so folks in the food industry use it as a sweetener, a preservative, to feed the livestock; I think they actually build their houses out of corn, they have swing sets for their kids made out of corn cobs, many of their friends and neighbors are made from corn.

Again, hot dogs are not alone here.  There is nothing in a Vienna Beef hot dog that is not in thousands of other food products available for consumption at your local grocery store.

What would your final assessment be?

After doing research I didn’t really waiver too far from my original hypothesis: Hot dogs are not great for you, but you’re not going to drop dead from eating them when you attend the ballgame.  Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by the care that went into hot dog production at Vienna Beef.  And for the workers who made the hot dogs.

A Vienna Beef hot dog on a bun with some mustard? You’re looking at about 40% of your daily recommended sodium and saturated fat intakes.  But they’re just so damn good, we didn’t expect them to be healthy too, right?

Right.  Eating all the ballpark at all is already viewed as a digression from normal diet such that I imagine the average fan doesn't fret the details unless there's a drastic issue to worry about.

Well, there is another factor worth mentioning here too, and that is the food service at U.S. Cellular Field, which has had some issues with health violations recently.  It seems they were not storing some food items at the proper temperatures.  So if you eat a hot dog at the Cell and subsequently become violently ill, it’s probably that.

Well, I almost would have been disappointed if your investigation revealed they were perfect.

 

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  • Just realized that I left out the link to the article where you can read about food violations at U.S. Cellular: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-09-24/health/ct-met-stadium-inspections-folo-20110924_1_critical-violations-food-violations-health-inspections

  • Unfortunately, Sara Lee put Best's Kosher out of business. Until that happened, Best's Kosher was the official Kosher hot dog of the Chicago White Sox. That led to the question "is there an official trefe hot dog," to which the answer was, "yes, Ball Park Franks," also sold by Sara Lee and at the Cell.

    At least Vienna is local and tastes better than Ball Park.

    As they say, you don't want to know how sausage is made. My sister, when she worked for Oscar Mayer, once described it.

    Channel 32 also has its annual trip to the Vienna factory, and, to be honest, the meat didn't look too appetizing until the hot dogs were formed and smoked.

    To me, New York dogs (Nathan's and Hebrew National) taste like they are much more full of fat than Chicago dogs.

    And if the Brewers sell the various sausages depicted in the Sausage Race, the packages for such things a Johnsonville Brats (not to be confused with the Bart Simpson Brat) state that they are loaded with sodium. Your correspondent would also need to investigate how the pigs were raised.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks for your insight. I admire a man who knows his tube steaks.

    I'm kind of scared to research Ball Park Franks because I have a good friend who works for the company (a division of Sara Lee as you point out). I'm afraid of what I'll find out after he's assured me in the past that there is nothing funky in a Ball Park hot dog. Making anything to the contrary public might affect our friendship. And I've already given him a hard time about stealing our TIF money, so there is tension there to begin with: http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2011/12/13/mayor-emanuel-gives-sara-lee-a-big-wet-and-sloppy-65-million-tif-kiss

    I will get to the brats and sausages at the Cell and (gulp) pork.

  • In reply to Chris Lamberti:

    With respect to Ball Park Franks, I wondered what made them "plump" (as advertised). When I nuke a dog, it usually shrinks.

    I also don't remember the Cell being into sausages, but times may have changed.

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