Record-breaking eater banned from hot dog contest over surprising links to a vegan brand

By Liis Hainla. Published: June 2024.
We may receive a commission for purchases made through the links in this post. Learn more.

It sounds like the set-up for a joke. But for Joey Chestnut, famed US competitive eating champion, the disappointment was very real. On 11 June, he was told he could not join Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest: an event he has won 16 times. 

In the competitive eating world, Joey Chestnut is the closest thing there is to a household name. He holds the world record for hot dog eating – a record he broke in 2021, at the very event that now won’t let him compete. If you’re interested, he ate 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes. 

He holds a total of 55 world records, including:

  • 141 hard-boiled eggs in 8 minutes
  • 81 waffles in 8 minutes
  • 53 softshell tacos in 10 minutes

And Nathan’s is the perfect occasion for him to cement his position as a speed-eating icon. The contest began all the way back in 1916, the same year Nathan Handwerker founded Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs on Coney Island. Supposedly, four European immigrants were arguing about who was more American – and decided to settle it with a hot dog eating contest. 

Whether or not that story is true, the contest has become legendary inside and outside of the US. In recent years, up to 40,000 people have attended the event in person. 

So why is Joey Chestnut, the king of speed eating, no longer in the running?

The ban comes after Chestnut signed a sponsorship deal with plant-based meat brand Impossible Foods. According to the Washington Post, Chestnut’s contract with Nathan’s Hot Dogs had expired. The new deal with Impossible doesn’t prohibit working with other retailers, but the people at Nathan’s Hot Dogs are not happy about the arrangement.

A statement released by Major League Eating (MLE) – essentially the governing body behind Nathan’s competitive eating contest – revealed that Chestnut will not be allowed to complete unless he ends his sponsorship with “a rival brand that sells plant-based hot dogs”. 

Nathan’s has since denied Chestnut’s requests to reconsider the ban. 

Chestnut tweeted that he was “gutted”.

Is Impossible a “rival” brand?

It’s an interesting question. Some commentators have expressed astonishment at the phrasing used by MLE. One USA Today article is subtitled: “There’s no such thing as a plant-based hot dog”. 

The article’s argument, that “radical vegan nomenclaturists have now DESTROYED the Fourth of July”, is hard to take seriously. But it is interesting to note that Nathan’s Hot Dogs considers a plant-based meat business its competitor. 

Campaigners in Europe have been working hard to ensure such competition is possible, as pushback from the farming industry has made it harder and harder to label plant-based alternatives accurately. 

But, for the sake of our planet and the animals, plant-based alternatives must compete with meat. When plant-based meats are sold in the meat aisle of the supermarket, sales go up significantly. And when those sales go up, emissions tend to go down

The fact that a hot dog company considers a plant-based business a serious competitor – to the point where it would make headlines to stop a sponsorship deal – suggests the meat industry is increasingly threatened by the success of vegan meat. 

Some have responded by viewing the plant-based food market as an investment opportunity. US meat giant Tyson Foods previously invested in Beyond Meat, and JBS, the world’s largest beef processor, unveiled its first plant-based burger back in 2019. Many other giant meat companies have begun investing in plant-based alternatives in recent years. 

At the same time, pushback from the farming industry is perhaps stronger than ever. 

As for Joey Chestnut, he’s not vegan. Far from it. Presumably, he just saw a lucrative brand deal and took it. The fact that Impossible has offered such a high value sponsorship to a famous carnivore is, in itself, interesting. It’s bound to be controversial among Impossible’s vegan customers. So what does Impossible stand to gain? Perhaps a man who – surely – knows the taste and texture of ‘real’ meat better than anyone is the perfect partner for a brand keen to show its plant-based alternatives can match up. It may be that simple. 

Either way, the fact that the sponsorship has caused such a stir is a fascinating reflection of the power of the plant-based meat industry.

My name is Liis. I have been a vegan for a long time and I advocate for the vegan lifestyle. Through Vegan Avenue, I aim to provide quality information about vegan products and bring attention to amazing vegan companies.