The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery

Canned tuna is excessive in protein, low in fats and by far the most popular shelf-stable seafood within the United States.

It will also be mysterious, questionable and scandalous. As The Washington Post reported in late January, Subway — the world’s largest sandwich chain — is at the moment going through a class-action lawsuit within the state of California that claims its tuna sandwiches “are completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.”

After the information broke, the jokes swiftly adopted. Jessica Simpson (who famously didn’t know whether or not Chicken of the Sea was hen or tuna again in 2003) tweeted: “It’s OK @SUBWAY. It IS confusing.” Jimmy John’s, a competitor, began sending electronic mail blasts with topics like: “Tuna 👏 Sandwiches 👏 Should 👏 Use 👏 Real 👏 Tuna 👏.”

Subway, for its half, has categorically denied the allegations. “There simply is no truth to the allegations in the complaint that was filed in California,” a spokeswoman wrote in an electronic mail to The New York Times. “Subway delivers 100 percent cooked tuna to its restaurants, which is mixed with mayonnaise and used in freshly made sandwiches, wraps and salads that are served to and enjoyed by our guests.”

From a reporter’s perspective, nevertheless, the case bore additional investigation — a deep dive, if you’ll.

So, I procured greater than 60 inches value of Subway tuna sandwiches. I eliminated and froze the tuna meat, then shipped it throughout the nation to a industrial meals testing lab. I spent weeks chatting with tuna specialists. I waited, and waited, till the lab outcomes got here again.

Here’s what I discovered.

Canned tuna has its die-hards and naysayers, nevertheless it definitely sells. According to Nielsen Holdings, a worldwide knowledge and analytics firm, about 700 million cans of tuna had been offered within the U.S. over the past yr.

“I think part of it is just nostalgia,” stated Ryan Sutton, the chief meals critic for Eater NY, when requested to clarify the ascendancy of the canned fish. “It’s what a lot of people grew up eating.”

Tuna sandwiches rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when individuals realized canned fish might translate into a fast and low cost meal that concerned no cooking. By the 1950s, tuna had surpassed salmon in reputation, and through the 1980s, an estimated 85 percent of Americans had canned tuna of their pantries regardless of rising issues about excessive ranges of mercury within the fish.

After a decades-long decline in tuna consumption, a 2018 Wall Street Journal story prompt that millennials had been accountable (“many can’t be bothered to open and drain the cans”), although newer manufacturers providing extra sustainable choices had been seeing their market share develop.

Then, in 2020, canned items took on nice urgency as buyers scrambled to buy shelf-stable food, not realizing how lengthy the pandemic may final. That yr, the worldwide canned tuna market was valued at $8.57 billion, in keeping with Grand View Research.

Subway has almost 40,000 places worldwide, about half of them within the U.S. (As Grub Street once calculated, the common distance between Subways in Manhattan is 1,154 ft, or about 4 and a half blocks.) The complete variety of places has been in decline since 2015, a pattern {that a} New York Times investigation attributed, partly, to focused and manipulated inspections.

Still, Subway’s storefronts are ubiquitous, and in keeping with the corporate, its tuna sandwiches are a few of the greatest promoting. “Subway’s tuna sandwich ranks among our guests’ favorite sandwiches,” the chain’s spokeswoman wrote in an electronic mail.

But it’s protected to say that Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin — the plaintiffs within the lawsuit — don’t love Subway’s tuna, which they imagine is “anything but tuna,” in keeping with their submitting from January. (Ms. Dhanowa and Ms. Amin’s authorized group declined to touch upon the case for this text.)

What precisely the plaintiffs imagine the sandwiches comprise, they wouldn’t say. But they’re alleging that Subway has intentionally misled prospects by promoting merchandise “falsely advertised as ‘tuna’” in an effort to cost a “premium price.”

Subway’s spokeswoman, when requested concerning the progress of the case, reiterated the assertion shared when the unique grievance was filed.

“The taste and quality of our tuna make it one of Subway’s most popular products and these baseless accusations threaten to damage our franchisees,” she wrote in an electronic mail.

“Given the facts, the lawsuit constitutes a reckless and improper attack on Subway’s brand and goodwill,” she added.

With all of that in thoughts, I started looking for a industrial lab that might take a look at a pattern of Subway’s product. A handful of them politely declined my inquiries, citing technical limitations and firm insurance policies that made my tuna ineligible for evaluation. Eventually, I discovered myself on the telephone with a spokesman for a lab that focuses on fish testing. He agreed to check the tuna however requested that the lab not be named on this article, as he didn’t need to jeopardize any alternatives to work immediately with America’s largest sandwich chain.

For about $500, his lab might conduct a PCR take a look at — which quickly makes thousands and thousands or billions of copies of a selected DNA pattern — and attempt to inform me whether or not this substance included one among 5 totally different tuna species.

According to the Seafood List, which is compiled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there are 15 species of nomadic saltwater fish that may be labeled “tuna.”

Subway’s tuna and seafood sourcing assertion says the chain solely sells skipjack and yellowfin tuna — species {that a} lab would acknowledge as Katsuwonus pelamis and T. albacares.

Before it lands on a Subway sandwich, that tuna, like the vast majority of commercially offered tuna, is caught by fishermen working in unique financial zones. (E.E.Z.s are areas that reach roughly 200 nautical miles from every nation’s coast; the U.S., with over 13,000 miles of shoreline, controls the biggest E.E.Z. on the earth, containing 3.four million sq. nautical miles of ocean.)

There are 5 organizations that handle regional fisheries inside these financial zones. Their job is to implement laws and “make sure the predators of ocean ecosystems remain in the ocean and not on our plates,” in keeping with Barbara Block, a professor of marine sciences at Stanford University who co-directs Stanford’s Tuna Research and Conservation Center.

“Removal at sustainable levels is a priority of many,” Dr. Block added in an electronic mail, “but practiced by few.” Bluefin tuna, for instance, is now an endangered species following decades of overfishing.

There are three strategies these fisheries use to catch tuna: purse seining, longlining and pole-and-line fishing.

Pole-and-line fishing is the type hobbyists participate in: sitting on a ship and bringing in a single catch at a time. Larger fishing operations are inclined to depend on the opposite two strategies.

Purse seiners drop a big, spherical wall of netting round a faculty of fish after which “purse” the underside of the online shut to stop fish from escaping. Longliners drop one 30- or 40-mile-long line into the water, then anticipate the fish to catch on tons of (or 1000’s) of hooks.

Then the fish is cleaned, sorted and, ultimately, canned. Dave Rudie, the president of Catalina Offshore Products in San Diego (the previous tuna capital of the world), works with a cannery that sells about one million cans of tuna every year, 10,000 of which comprise bigeye sourced from him.

“The really perfect colored tuna — the brightest red — goes to the sushi bars,” Mr. Rudie stated. “Tuna that’s a little bit paler in color will go more for the cooking, where you sear the outside and throw out the middle.”

“We also get some more off-color tuna and that off-color tuna, we cut it up and freeze it,” he continued. “And we send it up to a cannery in Oregon.”

Canneries are inclined to comply with the identical basic course of. “Most canned tuna is caught by purse seiners and it’s frozen on the boat,” Mr. Rudie stated. “They’re going to take it to a cannery, where they’re most likely going to cook it once, and then they’re going to pull the meat off the bone, and they’re going to put it in a can, and then it’s going to get retorted — cooked a little bit — to sterilize it the last time before they seal the can.”

Then there’s the difficulty of labeling. When Oceana, a company targeted on ocean advocacy, performed one of many largest “fish fraud” investigations within the early 2010s, it found that “seafood may be mislabeled as often as 26 to 87 percent of the time for commonly swapped fish such as grouper, cod and snapper, disguising fish that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.”

Such distinctions may not be noticeable, or all that worrying, to each shopper. But once you’re making an attempt to determine what’s in a Subway tuna sandwich, they matter.

I used to be instructed that if I packed a Ziploc of Subway tuna right into a Styrofoam transport cooler with a couple of ice packs and mailed it throughout the nation, the lab might take a look at it.

To procure the sandwich specimens, I visited three totally different Subway places round Los Angeles. It appeared logical to order solely tuna on the sandwiches — no additional greens, cheese or dressing — because the lab was already cautious concerning the challenges of figuring out a fish that’s been cooked a minimum of as soon as, blended with mayo, frozen and shipped throughout the nation.

My first frozen tuna cargo, which price upward of $150, was misplaced in transit. But on second attempt, the pattern arrived intact. In two to a few weeks, the lab would inform me whether or not it contained any tuna.

Though Subway declined to reveal its tuna suppliers, Sage, who has been a Subway supervisor in California for 3 years, shared some particulars about how the product arrives at her location. (Sage requested to not use her full title out of worry of reprisal from her employer.)

“The tuna comes in a case and inside the case, there are six aluminum pouches and it’s just like a pressed, vacuum sealed slab of tuna,” Sage stated. “It’s flaky and it’s clearly soaked in water — it’s like a brine, so it’s just soaked in salt water — and it’s just flaky tuna. We just spread it apart with our hands” — gloved, in fact — “and mix it with mayo.”

Sage stated that every retailer follows company pointers, which instruct that sure meats can keep out within the retailer’s refrigerated sandwich bar for as much as 24, 48 or 72 hours.

Tuna, she stated, has a 72-hour counter life (the timeframe was additionally confirmed by Subway’s spokeswoman), although Sage stated her retailer typically replaces it earlier than it hits three days. “We all agree — all of us that work there — it gets kind of gross,” she stated.

Jen, a former Subway “sandwich artist” who labored at a location in Iowa for a yr, stated she couldn’t think about what incentive Subway must change the tuna with anything. (Jen additionally requested to not use her full title out of worry of reprisal from her employer).

“I dealt with the tuna all the time,” Jen stated. “The ingredients are right on the package and tuna is a relatively cheap meat. There would be no point to making replacement tuna to make it cheaper.”

And as an occasional shopper of Subway’s tuna, Jen stated she’s assured it’s fish.

“I personally have a really weak stomach to fish, which is how we know the tuna is real,” she stated. “Last time I ate it, I puked my guts out.”

But Sage stated that past assembly these meals security requirements, she’s not very involved about whether or not this tuna is actual or not.

“We don’t really care at all,” she stated of herself and her fellow sandwich artists. “Which may sound kind of weird, I guess, but customers will bring it up and we just go, ‘I don’t know. What kind of cheese do you want?’”

Finally, after greater than a month of ready, the lab outcomes arrived.

“No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample and so we obtained no amplification products from the DNA,” the e-mail learn. “Therefore, we cannot identify the species.”

The spokesman from the lab provided a bit of research. “There’s two conclusions,” he stated. “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.” (Subway declined to touch upon the lab outcomes.)

To be honest, when Inside Edition sent samples from three Subway places in Queens out for testing earlier this yr, the lab discovered that the specimens had been, certainly, tuna.

With all testing, there are main caveats to think about. Once tuna has been cooked, its protein turns into denatured — that means that the fish’s attribute properties have seemingly been destroyed, making it tough, if not inconceivable, to determine.

All of the individuals I spoke with additionally questioned why Subway would swap out its tuna.

“I don’t think a sandwich place would intentionally mislabel,” Mr. Rudie from Catalina Offshore Products stated. “They’re buying a can of tuna that says ‘tuna.’ If there’s any fraud in this case, it happened at the cannery.”

Peter Horn, the director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project on the Pew Charitable Trusts, agreed that it will be tough to put blame on Subway if this had been the case.

“In the defense of Subway, or quite a lot of these fishmongers, the further you get the fish from the bone, the harder it is to recognize what that fish is,” he stated.

“Most of us see the fish on the bone, skin intact, and we can recognize what sort of fish that is,” he continued. “You drop the head and the tail off, it becomes more difficult, but you can still probably recognize it. You take the skin off it, you take it off the bone and you cut it into slices then you’re only sort of saying, ‘Right, what’s the color and texture?’”

Mr. Sutton, the meals critic, prompt that this incident might encourage shoppers to take extra curiosity in the place their meals comes from.

“I would hope that an issue like this would cause more people across the country and all across the world to spend more time thinking about every step of the environmental, labor and economic supply chains that supply their food,” he stated.

And at the same time as Subway’s costs have risen past the times of $5 footlongs, Mr. Horn stated the corporate’s notably low cost sandwiches increase extra vital questions than the integrity of their tuna.

“We can’t just continue to have a downward pressure on the price,” Mr. Horn stated, “because if we all want everything at rock bottom prices, that means something, somewhere is going to be exploited, whether that’s people or the ocean — probably both.”

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