A Charlotte-based food blogger said Thursday she’s looking for the next food company to scrutinize, a day after representatives of Subway restaurants told her they’ll be removing a chemical from their sandwich breads.
Subway’s announcement came after Vani Hari began a petition Tuesday on her blog, FoodBabe.com, and garnered more than 50,000 signatures in the first 24 hours.
The privately held chain, with more than 37,000 locations worldwide, said the process of removing the chemical, azodicarbonamide, had already been in the works. But Hari sees it as another example of what can happen when consumers speak up and push companies to change their products or practices.
“We did it,” she wrote to her followers Thursday on her Facebook page. “You are so powerful, I feel incredibly honored to be part of this movement with you.”
Hari, 34, started her website in April 2011 and writes about healthy eating and the dangers of processed food. A year ago, she was working to persuade Kraft Foods to stop using artificial food dyes in its macaroni and cheese. The company switched to paprika and beta carotene this November, along with lowering the amount of saturated fat and sodium, and increasing the amount of whole grains.
Hari told the Observer Thursday she started looking into Subway’s bread ingredients in June 2012.
“I wanted to know if I was actually eating fresh,” Hari said, referring to the sandwich chain’s slogan, “Eat Fresh.”
She said her research showed all of Subway’s bread varieties had at least 50 ingredients. She focused on azodicarbonamide, she said, because she didn’t know how to pronounce it. It is used in other food products, but Hari said she stuck with Subway because of the company’s close identity with healthy eating.
“When I can’t spell it or say it, that’s when you know you shouldn’t be eating it,” she said.
What Hari found astounded her: The chemical, she said, is a bleaching agent also used to make yoga mats and shoe rubber. Subway doesn’t use the ingredient in its breads in Europe, Australia or other parts of the world, she said.
She’s been writing about it on her website since she began her research, but she hadn’t taken dramatic measures. That changed when, a couple of weeks ago, first lady Michelle Obama touted the chain as a healthy option for kids. Subway had pledged to make healthier lunch options available for children.
“When the Michelle Obama announcement hit, it really broke the camel’s back – I had to do something,” Hari said.
So she emailed Connecticut-based Subway’s customer service address, asking if they would remove the chemical. She said she didn’t receive a response. Then she tried the customer service hotline, and spoke to a woman who told her a dietitian would call her.
Hari said she never heard from a dietitian. On Tuesday, she launched a campaign on her website against Subway’s use of the chemical. It encouraged people to sign a petition asking the chain to remove azodicarbonamide from its bread.
“I’ve never seen a petition get signatures this fast in relation to food,” Hari said.
Within 24 hours, more than 50,000 people had signed the petition; by Thursday evening it had more than 70,000 signatures. Angry consumers flooded Subway’s Facebook page and tweeted about it with the #NoWaySubway hashtag.
“Consider this gal no longer a customer,” wrote Facebook user Shanna Daniels. “You shouldn’t need the pressure of a petition and media attention to do the right thing.”
Subway sent Hari an email Wednesday, saying the chain would stop using the ingredient.
Asked for comment, a Subway representative referred the Observer to the company’s written statement, which said the chain is “already in the process of removing azodicarbonamide ... despite the fact that it is a USDA and FDA approved ingredient.” Subway hasn’t offered a timeline of when this would happen, except that “the complete conversion to have this product out of the bread will be done soon.”
Beyond Hari’s efforts, consumer groups have been increasingly vocal in their efforts to press food companies on the use of artificial or genetically modified ingredients. General Mills announced last month that original-flavor Cheerios will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients. The group Green America had pushed for the change.
Hari said she’d like to meet with Subway representatives to talk about the change and learn specifics, but she said she appreciated the initial response. “I’m so thrilled Subway decided to act this quickly.”
Thursday she spoke with ABC News, USA Today, New York Daily News and Global News Canada and others.
Now that she’s tackled one chemical in Subway sandwiches, Hari is figuring out the next brand to investigate.
“I have a laundry list of good companies that are deceiving us,” she said, “and I hope to hold them all accountable.”