Subway, the global restaurant chain with a telltale fragrance that attaches itself to anyone who dares enter, has found itself at the center of a public relations nightmare this week. At stake: Whether or not its chicken is actually chicken, or rather, some type of alternative meat product.
The debacle began when a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation news show called Marketplace conducted an investigation into the grilled chicken products served at various fast-food restaurants. They submitted samples from several chains for DNA testing, revealing last week that Subway’s chicken “was found to contain only about half chicken DNA.” The rest of the DNA was attributed to soy. (Comparatively, McDonald’s and Wendy’s chicken products were found to have around 85 and 88 percent chicken DNA, respectively.)
News of the CBC’s incriminating test results inspired a mixture of disgust and gleeful schadenfreude on social media:
50% of chicken is actually chicken at subway.— Ⓜ Mattastic ™ (@mactx85) March 2, 2017
That's way more than I expected.
Subway just revealed their chicken is only 50% chicken and the fact that people didn't know that before is the most shocking part.— Josh Rosen (@JoshRosen1) March 1, 2017
@SUBWAY are chicken sandwiches half price since they're only half chicken?— Zach Szczepanski (@Caddy_Zack) March 2, 2017
Faced with a deluge of negative publicity, Subway fired back with some studies of its own. The company says it submitted samples of its chicken to two independent labs, both of whom found that the product “had only trace amounts of soy."
“The stunningly flawed test by Marketplace is a tremendous disservice to our customers,” Subway’s CEO Suzanne Greco said in a statement. “The allegation that our chicken is only 50 percent chicken is 100 percent wrong.”
Now the CBC has responded to Subway’s rebuttal, saying “Marketplace stands by its report.” How could lab results possibly differ so much? The CBC writes, “While many media outlets took the results to mean that the chicken is only half chicken, the reality of DNA testing is slightly more nuanced.” (Of note: The CBC’s original headline contained the phrase “DNA test shows Subway sandwiches could contain just 50 percent chicken.”)
The CBC goes on to explain that “DNA tests don't reveal an exact percentage of the amount of chicken in the whole piece,” but cites a food scientist who says the tests are a pretty reliable indicator of how much soy Subway’s chicken contains.
While the exact composition of Subway’s chicken is seemingly up in the air, it’s definitely not 100 percent chicken: According to the chain’s own website, its chicken strips contain “boneless skinless chicken breast with rib meat, water, [and] 2 percent or less [of] soy protein concentrate, modified potato starch, sodium phosphate, potassium chloride, salt, maltodextrin, yeast extract, flavors, natural flavors, dextrose, caramelized sugar, paprika, vinegar solids, paprika extract, [and] chicken broth.”
Subway had seemingly already realized its chicken strips weren’t quite “chicken-y” enough for many consumers’ tastes, though, leading it to add a premium, “rotisserie-style” pulled chicken product to the menu last year.
It’s not the first time Subway has come under fire for its ingredients: In 2015, the company nixed an ingredient called azodicarbonamide after sensationalist health food blogger FoodBabe petitioned the company to remove it from their bread. A dough conditioner commonly used in commercially-made breads, azodicarbonamide is also found in various other products such as yoga mats.