Oops, you believed the Subway story

At the end of January, someone lied to you and you believed it.

I could just leave it at that. People lie pretty frequently, usually about mundane things. But I’ve got a specific whopper in mind – or, more appropriately, a specific footlong in mind.

See, you almost definitely saw a story about Subway, the famed sub chain, that maligned its tuna sandwich. Here’s what The Washington Post had to say about the tuna scandal:

Subway describes its tuna sandwich as “freshly baked bread” layered with “flaked tuna blended with creamy mayo then topped with your choice of crisp, fresh veggies.” It’s a description designed to activate the saliva glands — and separate you from your money.

It’s also fiction, at least partially, according to a recent lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Subway’s tuna is not tuna, but a ‘mixture of various concoctions,’ a lawsuit alleges

Although the Post article couches this with “according to a recent lawsuit,” there’s little here to make you think that the story isn’t true. Other outlets were even less generous; radio hosts around the country presented the story as true with no caveats.

A decade ago, a similar story made the rounds about Taco Bell. An Alabama firm sued the Tex-Mex giant claiming that it’s “seasoned ground beef” was only 36% beef, with the rest made from fillers. Under USDA rules, “taco meat filing” needs to contain at least 40% meat.

The Alabama firm abandoned its lawsuit after a few months. It said Taco Bell had changed its marketing practices and that as a result, it was satisfied. But Taco Bell issued a fiery statement saying it wasn’t changing anything and that the lawsuit had been meritless from the very beginning.

That Taco Bell’s beef isn’t 100% beef should not have surprised anyone, and the company never pretended it was. According to the company’s website, its seasoned beef contains: beef, water, seasoning [cellulose, chili pepper, maltodextrin, salt, oats, soy lecithin, spices, tomato powder, sugar, onion powder, citric acid, natural flavors (including smoke flavor), torula yeast, cocoa, disodium inosinate & guanylate, dextrose, lactic acid, modified corn starch], salt, sodium phosphates.

Though far from 100% beef, the lawsuit never went to court, so there was never an attempt to prove that it was the 36% beef the firm claimed. And I’ll hazard a guess that’s how the Subway tuna lawsuit is going to go, too.

Back to the Post: “The star ingredient, according to the lawsuit, is “made from anything but tuna.” Based on independent lab tests of “multiple samples” taken from Subway locations in California, the “tuna” is “a mixture of various concoctions that do not constitute tuna, yet have been blended together by defendants to imitate the appearance of tuna,” according to the complaint. Shalini Dogra, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, declined to say exactly what ingredients the lab tests revealed.”

Everything about this is, sorry, fishy. But again, the story was disseminated as if it was absolutely true. There’s nothing here where the Post really questions the narrative the attorneys put out. The first place I can see that tested it was Inside Edition, which reported Thursday that it tested three tuna sandwiches and determined all three contained tuna fish.

Now, let’s be clear: the story could be true. Subway doesn’t operate its restaurants, instead using franchising, a common yet not commonly-understood system utilized by most chain restaurants in the United States. It could be that the Subway franchise tested did not meet the chain’s standards, in which case Subway would simply revoke the franchise and seek to dismiss the case as the franchisee, not Subway, was at fault.

I’m less interested in the truth of the story (which, to reiterate, could only be true insofar as some franchises are serving fake tuna and not that the company is secretly passing off couch cushions as tuna) as the way it spread so quickly. It has everything a viral news story needs. You know Subway, you probably know someone who has purchased a tuna sandwich there, and there’s something about fish or meat salads that already seems suspect so they’re ripe for this kind of conspiracy theory.

But that’s what it is: a conspiracy theory. Why are well-meaning people – whether they be radio personalities or everyday folks on social media – regurgitating this conspiracy theory as fact? Because the media did. The media, which has only recently become comfortable with fact-checking politicians, is still scared to fact-check the public. It shouldn’t be. We are no more perfect than our leaders, and sometimes, somehow, less so. I did not expect that Inside Edition would become the hero of the Subway tuna conspiracy. But few other outlets stood up and tried to replicate the test or dispute the allegation. They will say that this is because they merely reported on the existence of the lawsuit and not its merits and that’s true, but it isn’t how the public understands the role of the press.