Up in the Great White North, a recent laboratory analysis unveiled a masquerade of meat. A researcher delved into the DNA of chicken sold at various fast food restaurants, at the request of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Marketplace” program. Not all poultry, the CBC reported, was as it seemed.
Four of the five fast food joints were mostly hawking the real bird. McDonald’s grilled country chicken, for instance, contained 90 percent chicken DNA.
But the chicken tucked into the world’s most ubiquitous submarine sandwiches proved to be an outlier. The chicken sold at Subway — which has the most restaurant locations of any fast food chain on the planet — was found to be almost equal parts meat to soy, based on DNA.
A Subway spokesman took strong exception to the report in an email to Consumer Affairs. Saying that “our Chicken is 100% white meat with seasonings,” he called it “false and misleading” and demanded a “full retraction,” which was not forthcoming from the CBC.
Matt Harnden, a technician at the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensics Center in Ontario, quantified the genetic material in Subway’s sweet onion chicken teriyaki strips and its oven-roasted chicken. This was not the first time that the Canadian center, a joint effort between Trent University and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, unmasked adulterated chow. In June, the facility detected horsemeat in ground beef patties sold in Canada.
In Subway’s case, the results were so unusual that the team purchased additional chicken to test. The lab analyzed six orders of the chicken strips and seven pieces of the oven roasted chicken. Averaged across all samples, the roasted sandwich meat proved to be only about 50 percent chicken by DNA. The strips were just over 40 percent chicken. The rest of the DNA, as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported, mostly came from soy.
(An analysis of a raw breast sliced fresh from the bird would show 100 percent chicken DNA. Cooked samples taken from a fast food restaurant, however, would reveal a somewhat reduced percentage, reflecting spices or marinades, as the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. pointed out. Many fast food meats, too, are processed. On average, each chicken sample consisted of 16 ingredients.)
The analysis was not published in a scientific journal or subject to peer-review, and Subway was not able to immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post. Subway Canada responded to the CBC in a statement, saying that it could not independently confirm the results of the analysis. But the sandwich giant said it found the “alleged findings” concerning.
Subway also acknowledged that, though meat in its strips were “made from 100 percent white meat chicken,” the end product was not entirely animal flesh. “Our chicken strips and oven roasted chicken contain 1 percent or less of soy protein,” Subway said in the statement. “We use this ingredient in these products as a means to help stabilize the texture and moisture.”
The restaurant chain issued a more strongly-worded objection in a statement to Consumer Affairs on Wednesday.
“We do not know how they produced such unreliable and factually incorrect data, but we are insisting on a full retraction. Producing high quality food for our customers is our highest priority. This report is wrong and it must be corrected.”
It was another public relations mark against Subway. In 2015, the restaurant chain’s pitchman, Jared Fogle, pleaded guilty to charges of sex crimes involving underage victims. He was sentenced to 15 years, eight months in prison.
Though it is the per-store world leader in restaurant chains, boasting 26,603 locations in the United States alone, the company has struggled to keep up with the fast-casual revolution spurred by the likes of Chipotle Mexican Grill, The Washington Post reported in 2015. In 2014, Subway sales declined $400 million, or 3 percent, from the year prior.
Subway would not be the only food chain to be hit with an impostor meat scandal. Taco Bell, accused of selling beef that was only 35 percent cow, launched a campaign to show its taco fillings were 88 percent beef. In 2013, Swedish furniture seller Ikea recalled frozen meatballs sold by the bag at its European stores, after testing revealed the presence of horsemeat.
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