Subway defends tuna, top DNA lab asserts widely-publicized tests were inadequate

Subway Restaurants has come to the defense of its tuna products, after a lawsuit was filed claiming its offerings are not the real thing.

Subway utilizes 100 percent wild-caught tuna, it said in a press release, soon after a New York Times report claimed testing found no tuna DNA in the restaurant chain’s tuna sandwiches.

The DNA testing utilized by the lab in the New York Times report is not accurate for canned and/or processed tuna, according to both Subway and the founder of a top DNA testing lab for cooked and processed tuna who spoke to SeafoodSource.

“The 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,” Subway said in a statement. “DNA testing is simply not a reliable way to identify denatured proteins, like Subway’s tuna, which was cooked before it was tested."

Various media outlets have confused the inability of DNA testing to confirm a specific protein with a determination that the protein is not present, according to Subway.

“The testing that the New York Times report references does not show that there is not tuna in Subway’s tuna. All it says is that the testing could not confirm tuna, which is what one would expect from a DNA test of denatured proteins,” Subway said.

Subway’s restaurants “serve 100 percent wild-caught, cooked tuna, which is mixed with mayonnaise and used in freshly made sandwiches, wraps, and salads that are served to and enjoyed by our guests,” the restaurant chain said. “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, small-business owners who work tirelessly to uphold the high standards that Subway sets for all of its products, including its tuna.”

LeeAnn Applewhite, founder and president of food DNA testing firm Applied Food Technologies in Alachua, Florida, confirmed to SeafoodSource that the type of DNA testing that the unidentified lab in the New York Times report utilized cannot detect tuna.

AFT is the only lab in the United States with the capability to test small, processed particles of tuna to determine whether it is truly albacore, skipjack, or other tuna as identified on the label, according to Applewhite.

“The retort process used in canned tuna production degrades and fragments the DNA. Our proprietary primers were developed to target these small fragments of DNA for analysis,” Applewhite said. “We have been working with the canned tuna industry for 15 years, and it is not easy. We spent a lot of time developing the polymers with the correct primers to do this kind of work.”

In fact, AFT tests tuna for major tuna suppliers such as Bumble Bee, Starkist, and Chicken of the Sea, and has been awarded more than USD 1 million (EUR 837,000) by the U.S. government to research and develop species-specific primers to analyze canned tuna.

Several months ago, AFT conducted 30 DNA tests on 150 pounds of Subway’s tuna for the T.V. show Inside Edition.

“In every sample tested, we were able to detect skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, or both species,” Applewhite said.

Subway noted that the plaintiffs who originally claimed in a class-action lawsuit that Subway’s tuna product contains no tuna, have “abandoned” that claim.

In an amended complaint filed earlier this month, the plaintiffs switched their focus to Subway’s sustainability claims. The company cannot ensure that its tuna is 100 percent sustainably-caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna, and that its tuna does not contain “tuna species that come from anything less than healthy stocks, for example albacore and tongol,” the complaint said.

The plaintiffs are also still contending that Subway’s claims that it utilizes 100 percent tuna are false. But they shifted focus to sustainability issues after being presented with information about Subway’s tuna-sourcing and the reliability of DNA testing, Subway said.

“However, rather than dismiss the claims altogether, as they should have, the plaintiffs’ lawyers filed an amended complaint that alleges our tuna product is now not 100 percent tuna and that it is not sustainably-caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna,” Subway said.

“Just like the original claim, the new claims are untrue and have absolutely no merit. In fact, the amended complaint does not remedy any of the fundamental flaws in the plaintiffs’ case that should result in the case being dismissed,” Subway said. “Given the facts, the lawsuit constitutes a reckless and improper attack on Subway's brand and goodwill, and on the livelihood of its franchisees.”  

Photo courtesy of Monticello/Shutterstock


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