“Eat fresh” at Subway — but good luck eating fish, if a news report on the sandwich chain’s popular tuna sandwiches is to be believed.
The New York Times sent frozen samples of tuna meat ordered from three different Los Angeles-area Subway shops to a lab that specializes in fish testing, in order to determine how much tuna is in the tuna sandwiches. The world’s largest subway chain is caught in the middle of a class-action suit in California that claims the popular tuna subs are “completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.” So the Times decided to analyze the sandwich’s main ingredient itself.
The Subway tuna samples were run through a $500 PCR test — aka a polymerase chain reaction test, which detects genetic material from a specific organism by making millions or billions of copies from a DNA sample. The lab was looking for traces of one of five tuna species, including the skipjack and yellowfin tuna that Subway’s tuna and seafood sourcing statement says are used in its sandwiches.
“No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample.”
The results: “No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample and so we obtained no amplification products from the DNA,” the report read. “Therefore, we cannot identify the species.”
While the story was published over the weekend, it went viral on Twitter on Wednesday morning. “Subway” was trending with around 60,000 tweets, and many discussing the tuna report.
“As someone who turned a $5 foot-long Subway tuna sandwich into two lunches several times a week as an assistant making $30,000/year in NYC after college, I am disturbed,” tweeted one customer, expressing a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many other Subway sandwich eaters. Tuna subs are a customer favorite, after all, and many Americans can’t get enough of the lean canned protein. About 700 million cans of tuna were sold in the U.S. over the past year, according to Nielsen.
A Subway spokesperson told MarketWatch over email that DNA testing is an unreliable way to identify denatured proteins — or proteins whose characteristic properties change due to heat or acidity, such as the way Subway’s tuna was cooked before it was served on a sandwich, and then later tested by the Times.
“Unfortunately, various media outlets have confused the inability of DNA testing to confirm a specific protein with a determination that the protein is not present,” the Subway rep wrote. “The testing that the New York Times report references does not show that there is not tuna in Subway’s tuna. All it says is that the testing could not confirm tuna, which is what one would expect from a DNA test of denatured proteins. The fact is Subway restaurants serve 100% wild-caught, cooked tuna, which is mixed with mayonnaise and used in freshly made sandwiches, wraps and salads that are served to and enjoyed by our guests. ”
“Subway restaurants serve 100% wild-caught, cooked tuna.”
As noted above, this mayonnaise and the tuna canning process could indeed be the reasons why the lab (which the Times said asked not to be identified) couldn’t catch any signs of tuna in the Subway samples that it analyzed.
“There’s two conclusions,” a lab analyst told the paper. “One, it’s so heavily processed that whatever we could pull out, we couldn’t make an identification. Or we got some and there’s just nothing there that’s tuna.”
And when Inside Edition tested tuna samples from three Subways in Queens earlier this year, the lab found that the specimens were, in fact, tuna. What’s more, the California class-action suit has walked back on its claims somewhat. The complaint has shifted from whether Subway’s tuna is tuna at all, to whether it’s “100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna.”
But this didn’t stop many on Twitter from having a field day with the latest test results suggesting that there is no tuna in the tuna sandwiches, however.
Subway counts almost 40,000 locations worldwide, with about half in the U.S.
And this isn’t the first time that its ingredients have been called into question.
Last fall, Ireland’s Supreme Court ruled that Subway’s hero rolls contained too much sugar to meet the legal definition of bread. Subway responded at the time that, “Subway’s bread is, of course, bread. We have been baking fresh bread in our restaurants for more than three decades.” It was also called out years earlier for mixing a chemical found in yoga mats (azodicarbonamide) in its bread recipe. Subway has since phased that chemical out.
And in 2017, Canadian lab test results found that the sandwich chain’s chicken only contained about 50% actual chicken DNA; the rest was soy filler. Subway responded then that, “We do not know how they produced such unreliable and factually incorrect data.” And it’s proceeding with a $210 million defamation suit against Canada’s public broadcaster Marketplace over the report.