Editor's Note: This article was updated on July 7 to include a comment from Subway.
After a damning class action lawsuit and several lab tests, questions about the authenticity of Subway's tuna continue to swirl throughout the media and food industry. Do Subway's tuna sandwiches actually contain tuna? Is Subway potentially deceiving customers by serving them mystery fish instead of the yellowfin and skipjack tuna varieties as described on its website?
A lawsuit filed in January 2021 against the sandwich chain by customers in California alleges deception. In a lab analysis of the chain's tuna commissioned by the plaintiffs, no actual tuna DNA was apparently found. The attorney for the plaintiffs told The Washington Post that "the ingredients were not tuna and not fish," but declined to clarify what ingredients had actually been present in the sandwich chain's serving.
In contrast, an earlier lab test commissioned by Inside Edition in February reviewed three samples of Subway's tuna obtained from locations in Queens, N.Y. The specimens were identified as tuna.
Most recently, The New York Times ordered a similar DNA test on tuna sampled from Subway locations in Los Angeles. The conclusion? While no tuna DNA was found in the lab test, deception by Subway was only one possible scenario. Another explanation, according to the report published last week, may be that Subway's tuna is simply too processed to turn up any DNA in lab tests.
"A recent New York Times report indicates that DNA testing is an unreliable methodology for identifying processed tuna. This report supports and reflects the position that Subway has taken in relation to a meritless lawsuit filed in California and with respect to DNA testing as a means to identify cooked proteins. DNA testing is simply not a reliable way to identify denatured proteins, like Subway's tuna, which was cooked before it was tested."
The California lawsuit has recently been amended to focus less on whether the chain's tuna is tuna, but whether it's "100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna." Subway responded to the new filing from June with a statement to Eat This, Not That!, in which they claim the plaintiffs abandoned their original claim after being presented with information from the chain, but filed a new, equally meritless complaint which "does not remedy any of the fundamental flaws in the plaintiffs' case."
With all the confusion around what fish species are actually represented in Subway's tuna, where the chain gets its tuna becomes the central question.
Is Jana Brands the importer of Subway's tuna?
According to The New York Times, Subway has declined to name its tuna supplier. However, a credible connection can be made between Subway and Jana Brands, a company founded in 1970 by Steve Forman. According to Jana Brands' website, Forman carved his career by pioneering the Alaska King Crab Tail industry. He found a way to commodify the crab tail—a product usually discarded when fresh crab is processed—and ended up turning it into a multi-million dollar industry. His company also introduced the 100% yield pouch pack tuna to the market, which is now a standard in both the foodservice industry and on supermarket shelves.
While Subway declined to comment to Eat This, Not That! about its connection to Jana Brands, one does exist on record. Forman was an early investor in Subway's expansion into China, according to a 2005 article in FORTUNE Small Business. He reportedly invested about $1 million for a 75% stake in the brands' franchising business in the country in the mid-1990s.
Jana Brand's own website states that Subway's Independent Purchasing Cooperative named Forman and his company their "Vendor of the Millenium" in the late '90s, thanks to the "the innovative contributions Jana had made to Subway from 1974 to the new millennium."
And several public import records show that Jana Brands is still at least one of the importers of Subway's tuna, having made imports of "POUCH FLAKES LIGHT TUNA BRINE" under the label "Subway" as recently as June 25. The shipment came from China. However, the species of tuna wasn't identified.
A request for comment for this article from Eat This, Not That! went unreturned by both Steve Forman and Jana Brands.
Subway's tuna is likely a cheap byproduct, expert says
Jana Brand's U.S. import records dating from 2019 under the label "Subway" show that the company imported tuna flakes for the chain. The tuna species for the product is identified as skipjack—exactly as the sandwich chain claims.
But the quality of the chain's product likely has less to do with the actual species of tuna and more to do with the parts of the fish that are used.
"It comes down to processing and manufacturing and how these products are handled," says Sean Wittenberg, cofounder of Safe Catch, a seafood company disrupting the industry with high standards of mercury testing on tuna.
Wittenberg believes that Subway uses 100% byproduct of twice-cooked tuna called the "flake," aka cheap trimmings that come off of the loin of the fish. In fact, the different quality categories of commercially canned tuna are designated based on how much of this byproduct versus actual chunks of tuna they contain.
Wittenberg, whose company uses once-cooked tuna to avoid disintegrating the protein too much, says that most commercial tuna is cooked twice during production. This means that tuna caught and frozen at sea gets thawed in pre-cookers, which strips the fish of its natural oils and dehydrates it. After it's cooled and cleaned, the cooked tuna travels down the assembly line, where flakes of the meat that fall off the loin get caught in giant tubs to be sold as tuna flakes. The tuna then undergoes canning and a second cooking process, which makes it shelf-stable.
"What I believe Subway is doing is they're using 100% flake from the lines of a very large factory, which is the cheapest byproduct, to get their costs down," Wittenberg says. "And they're probably doing it from a variety of seafood species—with everything off the line—but I bet the main species that you're seeing there is skipjack, tongol, and bonito."
This could explain why lab tests haven't been able to find any tuna DNA in Subway's product.
Bonito, while still in the tuna-mackerel family, isn't technically tuna. It also isn't one of the species mentioned on Subway's website. Additionally, Whittenberg says the word "light" on the import records means there's some leniency around what species can be found in the product.
"To be fair, I think bonito and tongol are both great fish. Skipjack's a great fish—it's more about how you process this fish," he says. "If you're taking just the flakiest parts of the loin from the twice-cooked line and adding vegetable oil and pyrophosphates and overprocessing it, the quality of fish doesn't really matter anymore."
Subway responded to our requests for comment on this story with the following statement:
"FDA-regulated Subway importers, such as Jana Brands, use only 100% wild-caught tuna from whole round, twice cleaned, skipjack tuna loins. Reclaimed meat and flake are strictly prohibited by our standards. The tuna that Subway guests enjoy is not processed any differently than canned or pouch tuna found in the average supermarket. And, according to scientific experts, the DNA test results from the unnamed lab obtained by the New York Times do not mean there is not tuna in their samples, only that it cannot be detected given the test method. This is leading to mass misunderstanding by broader media and the readers of their news. These falsehoods are having harmful impacts on the Subway brand, and more importantly, our network of franchisees – small business owners that own 100% of Subway restaurants in the U.S. Check out SubwayTunaFacts.com for the truth about Subway's tuna."
For more on Subway, check out:
- America's Largest Fast-Food Chain Is on a Downward Spiral, Reports Say
- Subway Operators Blame Founder's Scandalous Behavior for Chain's Downfall
- America's Largest Fast-Food Chain Is Taking a Harsh Stance Against Franchisees
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