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, 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 and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

18 responses

    1. Their bread? or there! bread! over there!

      Sorry. Anyway, most bread has some sugar in it. Corn syrup happens to be the cheapest form of sugar in the US. So that’s why.

      However, you’re right that Subway bread is sickly sweet as is most bread in the US. Sweet sells, I’m afraid.

    2. Some form of sugar is needed to feed the yeast in all yeast breads. If you want it to rise quickly, as at Subway and other places that want a short baking cycle, you give the yeast extra sugar. My favorite Italian restaurant has been doing it for fifty years.

      1. I am sure your Italian Fav. restaurant does not use high fructose corn syrup(unless they changed the formula) it has only been around for a short amount of time(70s or 80s).There are so many more natural sugars to choose that would do the job.
        HFCS It is cheap that’s the reason so many companies use it.
        I just wish it would be removed in products that people buy because they are suppose to be healthier for you.

  1. Missing the point…do you realize that everything you put in your mouth, unless you have grown it on your own, has something linked to it that is ‘bad’ for you?!?! The leading cause of death is life. If it isnt the chemical chatter, it would be that Subway doesn’t serve their customers quick enough. Consumers are ruthless…. I think there are bigger fish to fry here….

    1. Why should everything I put in my mouth have something “bad” for me in it? You may be right that the amount of azodicarbonamide is trivial, but I’m definitely of the camp that less chemicals is generally better!

      1. So are all of you going to stop purchasing bread at the grocery store and stop buying hamburgers from all the fast food chains. This is a food additive that is added to flour to make it white…why are you all ganging up on Subway?

        1. You are an idiot – no one is ganging up on anyone. We are simply voicing great concern about this harmful chemical was has been proven to cause asthma and does not belong in the food supply which has been snuck into our bread. Would you like to get asthma for that white flour? The article only refers to the fast food places; grocery stores were not mentioned, although, it is quite possible some of the brands there may contain it too.

  2. I don’t believe Subway is removing that chemical in the name of corporate responsibility and to hold themselves to the highest standards in the industry. I don’t believe their “we’ve been working on it” comment either. Food Babe said she’s been reaching out since 2012; Have they been reformulating their bread since 2012?

    All this shouldn’t be a surprise though. Subway’s in the business of selling, not healthy foods. Positioning products as healthy and fresh was smart in a fast food market that isn’t exactly appealing anymore due to the root-growing health and wellness trend.

    Too bad the company’s communication people weren’t as good as the marketers to manage external communication and now a PR crisis. With Cheerios’ recent announcement leading the way, a GMO discussion might well be next…

    A key piece to emphasize in that story should be that to this day, Subway still hasn’t given a date for effective removal of azodicarbonamide. And I don’t really see Vani Hari stopping until she gets one, given what she just accomplished.

    I’d love to get a sense of reach and effect of that news on consumers. I bet a large number still buy Subway subs while others never even considered stopping.

    1. Subway should be getting recognition instead of being condemned. They are taking action and I am sure this was not an easy process
      Do you think that McDonald’s / Jack in the Box / Burger King / all the Pizza places, etc will change their formulas?
      Are you going to stop buying bread and frozen pizza from the grocery stores?
      What about the FDA? They approve this chemical

      1. Let me clarify: You mean you ARE commanding Subway for very unwillingly removing a toxic chemical they’ve been feeding you via their bread (if they ever do so since they gave no effective date) after being publicly pinned and pretty much forced to do so? Wow.

        As for the FDA, good point, I wish I had solutions for that, but that’s a whole other ball game… Way bigger and more complex too.

        I do hope that their competitors follow suit. I don’t eat fast foods, but for those who do, it just bothers me that all these chains use shady artificial ingredients to prolong shelf life, without the littlest care about the possible (or already proven) effects on health.

        1. Read ALL the scientific literature. There is nothing “wrong” with the chemical Subway is taking out. They are only doing so because it’s less damaging to their reputation in a society filled with illiterates who no doubt would be alarmed if someone told them that their bathroom appliances contain Dihydrogen Monoxide.

        2. I’d be happy to take a look at the scientific literature you mention to educate myself. Always up for and in need of it. Please do share some links. Also, like I said above, I am pretty sure most of Subway’s consumers haven’t stopped eating their products because of this anyway. As for bathroom appliances (and else), I personally can only improve what I find out should be improved, so please enlighten me!

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