The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery


Canned tuna is excessive in protein, low in fats and by far the preferred 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 presently dealing with 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 rooster or tuna again in 2003) tweeted: “It’s OK @SUBWAY. It IS confusing.” Jimmy John’s, a competitor, began sending e 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 e 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, nonetheless, the case bore additional investigation — a deep dive, if you’ll.

So, I procured greater than 60 inches price 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 consultants. I waited, and waited, till the lab outcomes got here again.

Here’s what I discovered.

Canned tuna has its die-hards and naysayers, but it surely actually sells. According to Nielsen Holdings, a world information and analytics firm, about 700 million cans of tuna had been offered within the U.S. over the past 12 months.

“I think part of it is just nostalgia,” stated Ryan Sutton, the chief meals critic for Eater NY, when asked to explain 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 people realized canned fish could translate into a quick and cheap meal that involved no cooking. By the 1950s, tuna had surpassed salmon in popularity, and during the 1980s, an estimated 85 percent of Americans had canned tuna in their pantries despite growing concerns about high levels of mercury in the fish.

But it’s safe to say that Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin — the plaintiffs in the lawsuit — do not love Subway’s tuna, which they believe is “anything but tuna,” according to their filing from January. (Ms. Dhanowa and Ms. Amin’s legal team declined to comment on the case for this article.)

What exactly the plaintiffs believed the sandwiches contained, they wouldn’t say. But in their filing from January, they alleged that Subway has deliberately misled customers by selling products “falsely advertised as ‘tuna’” in order to charge a “premium price.”

Subway’s spokeswoman, when asked about the progress of the case, reiterated the statement shared when the original complaint 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 email.

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

With all of that in mind, I began searching for a commercial lab that could test a sample of Subway’s product. A handful of them politely declined my inquiries, citing technical limitations and company policies that made my tuna ineligible for analysis. Eventually, I found myself on the phone with a spokesman for a lab that specializes in fish testing. He agreed to test the tuna but asked that the lab not be named in this article, as he did not want to jeopardize any opportunities to work directly with America’s largest sandwich chain.

For about $500, his lab could conduct a PCR test — which rapidly makes millions or billions of copies of a specific DNA sample — and try to tell me whether this substance included one of five 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 can be labeled “tuna.”

Subway’s tuna and seafood sourcing statement says the chain only sells skipjack and yellowfin tuna — species that a lab would recognize as Katsuwonus pelamis and T. albacares.

Before it lands on a Subway sandwich, that tuna, like the majority of commercially sold tuna, is caught by fishermen working in exclusive economic zones. (E.E.Z.s are areas that extend roughly 200 nautical miles from each country’s coast; the U.S., with over 13,000 miles of coastline, controls the largest E.E.Z. in the world, containing 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean.)

There are five organizations that manage regional fisheries within those economic zones. Their job is to enforce regulations and “make sure the predators of ocean ecosystems remain in the ocean and not on our plates,” according to 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 email, “but practiced by few.” Some species of bluefin tuna, for example, have become endangered following decades of overfishing.

Such distinctions might not be noticeable, or all that troubling, to every consumer. But when you’re trying to figure out what’s in a Subway tuna sandwich, they matter.

I was told that if I packed a Ziploc of Subway tuna into a Styrofoam shipping cooler with a few ice packs and mailed it across the country, the lab could test it.

To procure the sandwich specimens, I visited three different Subway locations around Los Angeles. It seemed logical to order only tuna on the sandwiches — no extra vegetables, cheese or dressing — as the lab was already wary about the challenges of identifying a fish that’s been cooked at least once, mixed with mayo, frozen and shipped across the country.

My first frozen tuna shipment, which cost upward of $150, was lost in transit. But on second try, the sample arrived intact. In two to three weeks, the lab would tell me whether it contained any tuna.

Though Subway declined to disclose its tuna suppliers, Sage, who has been a Subway manager in California for three years, shared some details about how the product arrives at her location. (Sage asked not to use her full name out of fear 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 said. “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, of course — “and mix it with mayo.”

Sage said that each store follows corporate guidelines, which instruct that certain meats can stay out in the store’s refrigerated sandwich bar for up to 24, 48 or 72 hours.

Tuna, she said, has a 72-hour counter life (the time frame was also confirmed by Subway’s spokeswoman), though Sage said her store often replaces it before it hits three days. “We all agree — all of us that work there — it gets kind of gross,” she said.

Jen, a former Subway “sandwich artist” who worked at a location in Iowa for a year, said she couldn’t imagine what incentive Subway would have to replace the tuna with anything else. (Jen also asked not to use her full name out of fear of reprisal from her employer.)

“I dealt with the tuna all the time,” Jen said. “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 consumer of Subway’s tuna, Jen said she’s confident it’s fish.

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

But Sage said that beyond meeting these food safety standards, she’s not very concerned about whether this tuna is real or not.

“We don’t really care at all,” she said 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 more than a month of waiting, the lab results arrived.

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

The spokesman from the lab offered a bit of analysis. “There’s two conclusions,” he said. “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 comment on the lab results.)

“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 food critic, suggested that this incident could encourage consumers to take more interest in where their food 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 said.

And even as Subway’s prices have risen beyond the days of $5 footlongs, Mr. Horn said the company’s notably cheap sandwiches raise more important questions than the integrity of their tuna.

“We can’t just continue to have a downward pressure on the price,” Mr. Horn said, “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.”



Source link Nytimes.com

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