Redefining Fresh? Subway Removes a Chemical From Its Bread After Public Outcry

subway sandwichLast week one of the largest fast food companies decided to remove a chemical from its food after a public outcry on social media led by an influential blogger. Now, you might have heard similar stories before, but what makes this one even more interesting is the identity of the company.

This time it is none other than Subway, the restaurant chain that prides itself on providing a healthier and better alternative fast food.

The story begins last Tuesday, when Vani Hari, who runs the blog FoodBabe.com, launched a petition for the removal of a chemical called Azodicarbonamide from Subway sandwich bread.

Azodicarbonamide, Hari explained,  is used in yoga mats, shoe rubber and synthetic leather, the World Health Organization has linked it to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma, and it is banned as a food additive in Europe and Australia. However Subway, she added, uses it in the U.S. as a bleaching agent and dough conditioner in order to produce bread faster and cheaper.

Hari said she tried in the past to receive answers from Subway about the use of Azodicarbonamide, but never heard back from the company. This time the company couldn’t ignore her — within 24 hours the petition received more than 50,000 signatures (more than 80,000 by the end of the week), and “Subway’s social media channels were completely overrun by concerned citizens and the Food Babe Army,” according to Hari.

The company’s reply came eventually and was somewhat surprising. “We are already in the process of removing Azodiacarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts despite the fact that it is USDA- and FDA-approved ingredient,” the company said in a statement. “The complete conversion to have this product out of the bread will be done soon.”

I’ll get back later to Subway’s choice to ignore the petition in its statement. First, let’s look at the facts included in the statements. The FDA indeed allows the use of Azodicarbonamide in very small amounts (0.0045 percent or 45 parts-per-million by weight of the flour used) as a dough conditioner in bread baking.

So far, so good. However, this is not just a matter of compliance with the law, as we can learn from the fact that Subway decided to stop using Azodicarbonamide even though it’s perfectly legal to do so in the U.S. If it was only about compliance, then why would Subway stop using it? More likely, then, this is a matter of corporate responsibility.

When it comes to corporate responsibility, the name of the game in the case of Subway is health. The company positioned itself as a provider of healthier and fresh fast food choices, supported by reports like the one conducted last year by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) on kids’ meals, where Subway was the only chain that met CSPI’s nutritional criteria.

This year the company decided to take a step further and teamed up with first lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy Eating Initiative, pledging to take a couple of significant steps, including only offering items on its kids’ menus that meet the new federal nutritional standards for school lunches and spending $41 million in the next three years on marketing healthier options to children.

On the day of the announcement, the first lady visited a Subway sandwich shop a few blocks from the White House, and had lunch and a news conference there with famous athletes (Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin and Justin Tuck) and kids from a nearby elementary school. The Washington Post reported that the first lady ate a turkey sandwich on wheat stacked with banana peppers, green peppers and spinach, most likely without knowing that, if it this was a nine-grain wheat bread, her sandwich probably included Azodicarbonamide.

My guess is that if the first lady was familiar with controversy around this issue, she may have reconsidered some quotes in her press release, including “Subway’s kids’ menu makes life easier for parents, because they know that no matter what their kids order, it’s going to be a healthy choice.”

Yet, an even more important quote in the press release is one made by Suzanne Greco, VP of R&D and Operations at Subway: “… We hold ourselves to the highest standards in the industry when it comes to speaking to children and their families. Now we are letting everyone else know what that standard is.”

It’s quite obvious that you can’t claim to hold yourself to the highest standards, get involved in a national campaign with the first lady and not walk the talk. I believe that after Hari’s petition went viral Subway finally understood that they can’t continue to claim using Azodicarbonamide goes hand-in-hand with having the highest standards in the industry.

While Subway should be credited for doing the right thing, we can’t avoid the question of whether or not customers can truly trust the company and its commitment to provide “better choices for families.” I’d like to think that it can, because the company seems to be truly interested in positioning itself as the healthier choice for families.

At the same time, the fact that in its statement Subway totally ignores the public outcry and made no effort whatsoever to engage with the blogger who led this campaign (Hari) is a bit worrisome, as it bring into question the company’s willingness to engage with stakeholders, its openness to criticism and its commitment to transparency.

Without raising the bar on these components it would be very difficult for Subway to regain the trust of many of its customers and be framed again as everything that McDonald’s isn’t.

Will you trust Subway? If not, what does the company need to do to regain your trust?

Image credit: freddy, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.