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It started in January, when Choire Sicha, then The New York Times’s Styles editor, posed a question to his team on an internal messaging platform that went something like this:
Who wants to buy a Subway tuna sandwich and send it to a lab?
America’s largest sandwich chain had just been sued by two Los Angeles customers who said that the meat that Subway was advertising as tuna was, in fact, something else entirely. Julia Carmel, a news assistant who covers nightlife and writes for the Styles section, volunteered to investigate. She procured 60 inches of tuna sandwiches from three Los Angeles locations, froze the meat and shipped it across the country to a commercial food testing lab that, two months later, was unable to determine conclusively which species of tuna it was — or whether it was tuna at all. She recently chronicled the odyssey in a 2,500-word deep dive, “The Big Tuna Sandwich Mystery.”
In a conversation, Ms. Carmel discussed her reporting process and how a gimmicky idea turned into a broader look at America’s food supply.
Are you a tuna fan?
I’m not a huge canned tuna person. I’m definitely more of a sushi eater. But I did eat a lot of fish while working on this article. My editors were sending me messages, too — “I can’t stop thinking about eating tuna now!”
From that first message in January to publication last week, you spent six months in Tuna Land. Where did you start?
My first step was reaching out to a bunch of labs. I said, “Hey, I’m out of my depth here, but if I wanted to get a sandwich tested to find the protein that’s on it, can you help me?” And then our Food and Drug Administration reporter, Sheila Kaplan, was helping me determine which labs were accredited, because I don’t usually do food or science reporting.
Why order tuna sandwiches? Why not get just tuna salad?
It’s an exceptionally weird thing to ask for six scoops of tuna. It would have blown my incognito status!
You shipped your samples across the country to a food-testing lab — twice, after the first ones got lost in transit. Did you ever find out what happened to them?
They made it there — someone signed for the package. But they couldn’t track it down, and they never told me what happened. I assume the ice was pretty melted once it got past one day, so whoever got or opened that was definitely not happy. I assume they got some warm and smelly tuna.
When the lab results came back inconclusive, did you consider trying again?
At that point, the story wasn’t even about the results anymore. The larger issue was not “Is this real tuna?” but rather “What does it take to find out where your food is coming from, and why is it so difficult?”
If it isn’t real tuna, is Subway to blame?
Everyone I talked to said that if it’s anyone’s fault, it isn’t Subway’s. It’s really hard to trace the process when you buy canned food. Of course, corporations should be responsible for making sure you’re getting what you’re ordering, but, in the larger picture, you’re asking them to give you the cheapest possible product, in the quickest way, whenever you want it. Do I expect they’ll cut corners if I want a $6 sandwich at 3 a.m. with these specific toppings? That’s a lot to ask for — and it shouldn’t necessarily be — but when you reframe it that way, we have such a convenience culture. We need to look at more equitable and sustainable ways of sourcing our food.
You don’t come from a science background. How did you navigate reporting a technical story?
My two anchors were Caity Weaver’s glitter article and Jonah Bromwich’s story on whether hot dogs contain human meat. I hoped to produce incredibly playful, informative reporting that took you through something you hadn’t thought about. A scientist would use a full paragraph to explain lots of this, so it was figuring out how to take a very complex thing and maintain its integrity while making it understandable to the average reader. My first draft must have been 4,000 words, so thank God for editors.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
It’s mind-blowing that there are 15 different types of fish that can be called tuna by the F.D.A.
Million-dollar question: Is it tuna?
I think it probably is. I can’t imagine what motivation they’d have for it not to be. That said, I won’t be eating it anytime soon.