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The Subway Tuna Conundrum

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I remember the time when asking the Subway sandwich artist to change their gloves upon taking my order was an anxiety-inducing moment for me every single week through high school. The dreaded eye roll or sigh of frustration from my dear sandwich artist was the sacrifice I had to make to ensure that trace amounts of haram meat -worst of all HAM JUICES!- from previous customers’ sandwiches wouldn’t contaminate my otherwise presumably halal seafood sandwich. As it turns however, according to a recently filed lawsuit, contamination of a Subway tuna sandwich may go a bit further up the supply chain than many of us previously assumed.

The rest of this article will summarize the allegations of the lawsuit and then discuss (a)the legitimacy of the allegations based on third-party investigations and scientific research (b)why this issue is important to Muslims, and (c) what we can do with this information. 

Summary of the Lawsuit

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Two Californians have filed lawsuits against Subway this year, alleging that Subway’s so-claimed “100% real….wild-caught skipjack tuna regulated by the FDA1Subway Website. https://www.subway.com/en-us/tunafacts is “completely bereft of tuna as an ingredient.2“The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery,” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/19/style/subway-tuna-sandwich-lawsuit.html ” The plaintiffs, Karen Dhanowa and Nilima Amin, collected 20 samples of tuna from 20 different locations in Southern California and then conducted testing at the Barber Lab at UCLA’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The testing showed that 95% of the samples had “no detectable tuna DNA sequences” and that chicken, pork, and cattle DNA were detected in some samples.3 “Subway tuna contains chicken, pork and cattle, latest lawsuit alleges,” New York Post https://nypost.com/2021/11/11/subway-tuna-contains-chicken-pork-and-cattle-lawsuit/   

A Deep Dive into the Subsequent Investigations and Conflicting Results

This lawsuit caught the attention of the New York Times, which started its own investigation.  After conducting its own testing, the New York Times found “no amplifiable tuna DNA was present” and that they “[could] not identify the species” of whatever food stuffs the samples contained.4 “The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery,” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/19/style/subway-tuna-sandwich-lawsuit.html  All testing of Subway tuna sandwiches hasn’t yielded the same results, however. Testing done by the Inside Edition did identify tuna within the tuna sandwich samples sent to Applied Food Technologies in Florida.5“Is Subway’s Tuna Sandwich Actually Made of Tuna?” Inside Edition https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETqb9Umlo8A In 30 DNA tests on 150 pounds of Subway’s tuna, an AFT spokesperson said, “in every sample tested, we were able to detect skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, or both species.” According to Seafood Source,6“Subway defends tuna, top DNA lab asserts widely-publicized tests were inadequate,” Seafood Source https://www.seafoodsource.com/news/foodservice-retail/subway-defends-tuna-as-top-tuna-testing-lab-questions-dna-report AFT is equipped to properly identify processed tuna, whereas the other labs using PCR DNA testing may not have had the proper testing capabilities. USA Today7“Fact check: Social media posts on Subway tuna DNA test lack context,” USA Today https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2021/06/25/fact-check-online-post-subway-tuna-dna-report-missing-context/5325181001/ has also questioned the validity of the New York Times’ investigation

So, what sense can we make from the testing conducted which couldn’t find any tuna DNA in Subway samples? The New York Times’ lab spokesperson said, “There’s two conclusions. One, it’s so heavily processed that whatever we could pull out, we couldn’t make an identification.” This theory is in alignment with scientists who claim the PCR testing is much more effective in “non-processed [tuna] muscle” and isn’t a reliable method to identify the tuna in the Subway samples, which is canned/processed.8Zora Piskata, Eliska Pospisilova & Gabriela Borilova (2017) Comparative study of DNA extraction methods from fresh and processed yellowfin tuna muscle tissue, International Journal of Food Properties, 20:sup1, S430-S443, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2017.1297953 https://doi.org/10.1080/10942912.2017.1297953 (See Figure 1 above.) The New York Times’ lab spokesperson’s second conclusion? “Or…there’s just nothing there that’s tuna.” The plaintiffs’ testing from the UCLA lab suggests what might be in the samples. Their baffling testing results discovered “detectable sequences of chicken DNA” in all the samples, while pork DNA was found in 11 samples and cattle DNA in 7.9 “Subway tuna contains chicken, pork and cattle, latest lawsuit alleges,” New York Post https://nypost.com/2021/11/11/subway-tuna-contains-chicken-pork-and-cattle-lawsuit/  Regardless, it’s safe to say that perhaps some qualified scientists need to weigh in on this issue. (Paging Zora Piskata, Eliska Pospisilova, and Gabriela Borilova.) 

 

Subway’s Response to the Lawsuit

What does Subway have to say? Subway has, predictably, denied the claims about its tuna not being real tuna. In an email to the New York Times, a Subway spokesperson wrote, “there simply is no truth to the allegations in the complaint that was filed in California. 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.10 “The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery,” New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/19/style/subway-tuna-sandwich-lawsuit.html  Subway has been running campaigns to try to reassure customers that the tuna sandwiches they order are indeed made from tuna. After discussing conflicting lab results in the previous section of this article, Subway could be telling the truth. 

Implications for Muslims

Practicing Muslims are probably alarmed by the doubts cast on the ingredients that make up the tuna salad in Subway sandwiches, and understandably so. With Islamic dietary rulings, it is important for Muslims to know with certainty what meat they are consuming in order to determine whether or not they can consider it to be halal. All of the previously-delighted Muslims who had settled to cater tuna subs from Subway for their next masjid event (instead of  fighting over halal, zabihah halal, and hand-cut zabihah halal) are getting ready to draw out their butcher knives for battle. Forget moon-sighting wars, we’re moving into meat-slaughtering wars now.

On an individual level, there must be sirens going off in Subway-subsisting readers’ heads right now –did I eat pork…or alien…sandwiches for lunch every day this week?! I jest, but the fact remains that it is crucial  for a company to be, first, aware of what food stuffs they are selling to “[prevent] and [detect] food adulteration,” and second, to transparently and honestly disclose what food stuffs they are selling to their customers -whether customers’ dietary restrictions stem from religious beliefs, personal preferences, ecological ethics, or health concerns like “fish allergies.11Zora Piskata, Eliska Pospisilova & Gabriela Borilova (2017). Comparative study of DNA extraction methods from fresh and processed yellow fin tuna muscle tissue, International Journal of Food Properties, 20:sup1, S430-S443, DOI: 10.1080/10942912.2017.1297953 https://doi.org/10.1080/10942912.2017.1297953 ” Since many of us are incredibly far-removed from the original sources of the food that we eat every day, we have to rely on the regulation of the food industry to ensure we know what we are purchasing and then consuming. 

Let’s take a quick spiritual side-step here. I know there are readers who are so frustrated that yet another food might be haram after all. Honestly, I also had a major sandwich artist eye roll when I was asked to write this article. The halal/haram debate can get exhausting and overwhelming, but it’s due to the nature of the way food is produced and consumed in our times. The dietary restrictions Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has placed on His believers are not extensive or complicated; however, the reality that so many of us are so far removed from our food cultivation and creation makes the halal/haram issue a problem because it necessitates extra investigation and care when it comes to purchasing and consuming food. If it takes a little extra effort to stay obedient to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) divine rules, we can hope for an even greater return for our obedience. 

Yemeni food mutabaq sandwich

So, What Next? 

The plaintiffs on the case filed a third amended class-action lawsuit on November 8, 2021 against the fast food franchise, after a federal judge dismissed two previous lawsuits. We’ll have to wait and see how the lawsuit unfolds and if any further investigations provide a conclusive answer. If the testing results from the lawsuit are legitimate and sufficient, could the issue stem from food handling practices within Subway franchises themselves rather than an issue in the production of the tuna?

Regardless–what should Muslims observing Islamic dietary rules do in the meantime when it comes to Subway tuna sandwiches? For now, you can consult a local or trusted scholar if this is relevant to you.. We consulted Muslim Matters’ resident scholar, Shaykh Yahya Ibrahim, and he has recommended that Muslims should “avoid [eating Subway tuna for now] due to cross contamination and possible mislabeling of items” because “the principle with meat is [that it’s] haram unless known to be halal.” I also contacted American meat expert, Shaykh Hamzah Maqbul (@hwmaqbul on Twitter) from Halal Food Standards Alliance of America (HFSAA) for his opinion. Shaykh Hamzah said that he avoids Subway as a rule altogether due to “contamination issues. One set of gloves easily touches pork and lettuce several times alternatingly. Changing gloves for a new sandwich will not undo [that contamination.]” My seventeen year-old self is shook in hindsight -maybe I wasn’t being over dramatic about those ham juices. After hearing these opinions, if Subway tuna sandwiches are the love of your life, I’m sorry you have to go through this painful breakup. 

At the end of the day, I’m just glad that Muslims aren’t the only ones making a big stinking tuna about this issue, for many others are also disconcerted by the possibility of not knowing exactly what they are eating. Becoming more conscious about where food comes from, how it is processed, how we procure it, the environmental costs of food production, and health concerns, are becoming mainstream issues in America. For myself personally, I feel called to relearn and refresh my understanding of the basics of Islamic dietary rulings and think critically about how those rules function in the real world. If there’s cross contamination in Subway restaurants between meat and vegetables in its preparation, what about pizza places and other restaurants? It might be time for me to start asking detailed questions when I am thinking of eating out at any particular restaurant, and perhaps I won’t be so timid or anxious about it now that I’m older. I thought this Subway tuna scandal was just another scandal that would tornado through the Muslim community and be one I could mostly disregard, but it may have opened up a can of…tuna, and perhaps rightfully so. 

If you’re also looking to learn more about the fiqh of food, check out:

P.S. If you’re hankering for a 100% no doubt halal tuna sandwich right about now and don’t know where to find one, try my family’s favorite mayo-free tuna salad recipe at home!

 

Sources/Footnotes:

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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Meena is a high school English teacher, DIY enthusiast, wife, and new mom. She loves working with Muslim youth and is interested in literature, arts, and culture. She studied Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine and has a Master’s in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She briefly dabbled in Classical Arabic studies in the US and is also studying the Asharah Qira'aat/10 Recitations.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sam

    November 16, 2021 at 5:36 PM

    Informative article by an engaging writer!

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