Subway is currently fielding a class action lawsuit that alleges its tuna sandwich doesn’t have any actual tuna in it. That would, of course, be distressing. Nobody likes to eat something that isn’t actually what that thing is supposed to be. But is there any truth to the lawsuit’s allegations? That’s what a New York Times investigation aimed to find out. And, uh, the answer is somehow even worse than you might be expecting.
The nation’s largest sandwich chain says its tuna sandwiches are among its most popular menu items. Subway claims to exclusively use skipjack and yellowfin tuna — two of the 15 species of fish marine biologists recognize as tuna. It’s not uncommon for retailers to play fast and loose with fish labeling, mixing tuna with grouper, cod, snapper and other fish that are a little cheaper, though not as tasty to the American palate as tuna. One study in the 2010s found that such mislabeling happens anywhere from 26 to 87 percent of the time with tuna.
So it wouldn’t be unusual for DNA testing on Subway’s tuna to come back a little mixed. But what the NYT study discovered was surprising. Not only could the researchers not find any tuna in the samples they collected, they weren’t able to tell what was in the “tuna.”
“No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample and so we obtained no amplification products from the DNA,” the researchers told the Times in an email. “Therefore, we cannot identify the species.”
“There’s two conclusions,” said a lab spokesman. “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.”
So, this could mean a few things. The researchers noted that cooked tuna can be more difficult to identify than fresh caught, raw tuna. Several experts quoted in the story also noted that any fraud taking place was more likely happening at the canneries Subway buys from — not in the sandwich chain itself. A similar study from Inside Edition earlier this year did find actual tuna in the samples it sent, so the jury is still out on just how widespread this issue is.
“There simply is no truth to the allegations in the complaint that was filed in California,” a Subway spokeswoman told the NYT via email. “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.”
“The case is why advocates hope the case reminds people that it’s worth taking an interest in where your food comes from,” said Ryan Sutton, the NY Eater food critic. “The further away consumers get from the actual process, the more likely there is to be fraud. “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.”