Subway’s latest PR headache: Is that tuna sandwich really tuna?

America’s largest sandwich chain defends its popular tuna sammie as the real deal and pushes back with a big “refresh” campaign.
Subway says its tuna is the real deal.
Subway says its tuna is the real deal. [ Times ]
Published Aug. 11, 2021|Updated Aug. 11, 2021

Subway can’t seem to stop making news, and not always the kind it wants.

In January, America’s largest sandwich chain was sued in a California federal court on allegations that its super-popular tuna sandwich doesn’t contain actual tuna but a mix of “various concoctions” — Tunagate, if you will. Subway unequivocally denies this, saying their sandwiches are made with “100 percent wild-caught tuna.”

Since nobody expects fine dining even at a healthier version of a fast food restaurant — though they probably do expect actual tuna — reaction has been more amusement than consternation.

Celebrity Jessica Simpson seized the moment to try to redeem herself from that 2003 reality TV embarrassment when she was unsure if the Chicken of the Sea tuna she was eating was chicken or fish.

“It’s OK @SUBWAY,” she tweeted on the heels of the tuna suit. “It IS confusing.”

”My DNA test came back and I am 2 percent more tuna fish than a Subway tuna fish sandwich,” one wag posted on social media. “Can I get a non-specific tuna-like substitute on hearty Italian cake?” wrote another.

Cake, if you missed it, refers to Ireland’s Supreme Court ruling last year that Subway’s bread is not, for legal purposes, actually bread because of its sugar content. And yes, there were TikTok videos.

An interesting twist to Tunagate: the New York Times sent samples of Subway tuna to a commercial food testing lab, which found “no amplifiable tuna DNA.” But it only gets more intriguing: A spokesperson for the lab said it may have been so processed they couldn’t make the ID. Also, cooked tuna may be more difficult to identify, the Times reported.

And when Inside Edition sent its own Subway samples to a lab? Yep, tuna.

A more recent filing in the lawsuit centered not on the tuna-or-not question, but whether it was “100 percent sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna,” the Times reported. So stay tuned.

Tunagate is hardly Subway’s first PR migraine.

A petition called for the company to stop using azodicarbonamide, a chemical substance found in yoga mats and shoe soles, in its bread. In 2014, the company said though it was an “extremely common bread ingredient,” they were getting rid of it.

Then there were those not-funny headlines about Jared Fogle, the cult-status Subway spokesguy. A nerdy everyman who lost more than 200 pounds on a diet that included Subway, he successfully pitched the chain as a healthy fast food option. Accused of trading in child pornography and having sex with minors, Fogle was sentenced in 2015 to 15 years in prison.

Former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle leaves the Federal Courthouse in Indianapolis, following a hearing on child pornography charges. [MICHAEL CONROY | Associated Press]
Former Subway pitchman Jared Fogle leaves the Federal Courthouse in Indianapolis, following a hearing on child pornography charges. [MICHAEL CONROY | Associated Press]

In our ever-litigious society, Subway also got sued after a Facebook post showed a footlong sandwich that was not quite a foot long. A class-action settlement in that case was later called “utterly worthless” by an appeals court and thrown out.

Subway seems to be pushing back lately with a barrage of ads that say they’ve hit “refresh” and are making big changes. They’re talking about their revamped menu with new items, but maybe there’s also a whiff of can-everyone-please-stop-talking-about-tuna-already in there.

Subway ads promise a "refresh."
Subway ads promise a "refresh." [ SUE CARLTON/Times ]

But seriously: Consumers deserve truth-telling and companies should be held accountable if they’re not serving what they say they’re serving. The Tampa Bay Times reported in 2006 that some local restaurants with grouper on the menu — grouper being something we’re known for around here — were actually serving cheaper fish.

And Subway should be loudly vindicated if the allegations, though extremely meme-able, turn out to be untrue.