Subway tuna sandwich controversy: Have you been eating fake fish?

Subway Tuna Sandwich Fishy business at subway (Image: Sandhya Raghavan)

When one thinks of Subway, images of sandwiches stuffed with cold cuts, cheese and veggies come to mind. No one really thinks of the tuna sandwich with its pink mush oozing out.

Yet, inveterate Subway lovers know that the chicken teriyakis and tandooris are initiation subs for rookies. A tuna sandwich is what you want to eat when you achieve Subway Grandmaster status.

But a class-action lawsuit is threatening the beloved sub’s reputation. Plaintiffs say that there’s no real tuna in the Subway tuna sub. So, what have we been eating all along?

But first, let’s read a little bit about the sandwich.

Why is Subway tuna so good? 

The Subway tuna scores for a few reasons. It’s somehow lighter (not necessarily healthier), it’s flavourful, and if the restaurant’s words are anything to go by, it’s made of “100% wild caught tuna” — possibly skipjack and yellowfin tuna.

It’s also the only pescatarian option on the menu.

The restaurant’s website writes glowingly about the classic sub, claiming that it’s made from sustainably sourced tuna, which is “blended with creamy mayo then topped with your choice of crisp, fresh veggies. 100% delicious.”

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Subway tuna sandwich lawsuit

Back in January 2021, the Washington Post reported a lawsuit filed in a US district court against Subway. One of the attorneys Shalini Dogra alleged that Subway’s tuna sandwiches are “made with anything but tuna.”

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The complainant based the lawsuit on numerous independent tests done on samples taken from across Subway outlets in California, USA. Tests conclude that the “tuna” is actually a mishmash of ingredients made to look and taste like the real deal.

While we don’t know what ingredients went into the mush, the attorney told WP that sandwiches contained neither tuna nor fish. Yikes!!!

The seven plaintiffs in the case told the court that they were “duped” into buying Subway’s supposed fake tuna thinking it was a premium food.

Unsurprisingly, Subway doubled down on the complaints. The company spokesperson Maggie Truax went as far as to say that the lawsuit is aimed at damaging Subway’s reputation and the livelihoods of small business owners who own franchises. 

Trouble for Subway was far from over. All it took was an enterprising New York Times journalist Julia Carmel who visited three different Subway restaurants around Los Angeles.

She made it a point to order plain tuna and bread since it was important to protect the integrity of the “fish” that could otherwise get compromised by other ingredients and shipping.

There were challenges galore, including a $150 shipment fee and the package getting lost in transit. Another impediment was Subway’s non-disclosure rule for tuna suppliers.

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Is the Subway tuna fake or real?

Carmel reached out ex Subway managers, one of whom said that the fish comes packed in a vacuum-sealed brick form. Another one told Carmel that she saw no point in the restaurant replacing the relatively cheap tuna with an even cheaper substitute.

Both sources maintain that what Subway supplied is indeed tuna. But the lab results disagreed.

After a month of waiting, the lab said that it found “no amplifiable tuna DNA” in the samples and couldn’t ascertain the “species.” While it could mean that the restaurant used a franken-meat, the lab added that the heavy processing of the tuna meat may have rendered DNA detection impossible.

To cut Subway some slack, a test done by Inside Edition could conclusively detect tuna in the specimens.

Since then, the plaintiffs who slapped the class action lawsuit have now slightly backtracked from their initial complaint. They now say that they never doubted that it’s not tuna, but whether it was 100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna as the company claimed.

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Part of the blame also lay with fishmongers, said Peter Horn, the director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project, to NYT. Once the head and tail of the fish are cut off and its skin is flayed, it is tough to identify its type.

It’s also possible that excessive processing by cooking or brining can impact the DNA of the fish.