By SUSAN DONALDSON JAMES
Subway said today it is removing a chemical used in yoga mats and shoe soles from the bread of it its popular sandwiches after a food blogger got more than 50,000 signatures in a petition drive.
"The complete conversion to have this product out of the bread will be done soon," Subway said in a statement. The company said the move had nothing to do with the protest and that it was "already in the process of removing azodicarbonamide as part of our bread improvement efforts."
But Vani Hari, the activist blogger who takes credit for the removal of yellow dyes in at least three of Kraft's Mac & Cheese products for children, was declaring victory after she had been researching the company's bread ingredients since 2012.
"I commend Subway for finally responding to me and now over 57,000 concerned citizens. Their swift action is a testament to what power petitions and individuals who sign them can have," Hari said. "I'd like to note that current Subway sandwiches still have this ingredient, and urge everyone not to eat their sandwich bread until they have finally removed the chemical."
Hari said she was shocked to find azodiacarbonamide, a plastic-based additive, on Subways' food labeling.
The World Health Organization has linked this chemical additive to respiratory issues, allergies and asthma, and it is banned in Europe and Australia. Azodiacarbonamide is legal in the United States and Canada.
"It helps ... produce the air within the foam of a yoga mat," said Hari. "It does the same thing for bread."
She sent a petition via her Food Babe blog to Subway's corporate offices. The petition was signed by more than 50,000 people, asking that it be removed from the bread, as it is in products sold overseas.
"When you look at the ingredients, if you can't spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn't eat it," said Hari.
Hari's petition comes on the heels of a recent Subway endorsement of sorts by First Lady Michelle Obama, who has praised the company's children's menu as "something we can be proud of," according to the Washington Post.
Praising the company when it pledged to join the first lady's Partnership for a Healthier America last week, Obama visited a Subway a few blocks from the White House last week and said the company makes it "easy for parents like us."
"You don't have to argue with your kids about what they can and can't have. You can let them loose, and no matter what they choose from the kid's menu -- you know it will be healthy."
Hari wanted Subway to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to healthy eating.
"What really upset me was it was something I always ate while on the road that I thought was healthy -- their nine-grain bread and veggie sub and all the marketing about low calories and weight loss," said Hari, 34, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.
"And they have an American Heart Association logo and stamp on their sandwiches," she said. "I really had the illusion of healthy eating. When I saw what was actually in the bread, I was horrified."
The Food and Drug Administration considers azodiacarbonamide safe when used as an "aging or bleaching" ingredient in cereal flour if it does not exceed 45 parts per million. It is also approved for use as a "dough conditioner" in the same proportions.
"As part of FDA's overall commitment to ensure the safety of the food supply, the agency uses an extensive, science-based process to evaluate the safety of food additives," said FDA spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman. "Under FDA regulations, safety for food additives means that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm when an additive is used within the intended conditions of use."
Eisenman told ABCNews.com that FDA is currently collecting data on the use of azodicarbonamide in bread.
"The agency continues to monitor the safety of food additives, including azodicarbonamide, and is prepared to take appropriate action if there are safety concerns," she said.
Hari said she had no idea what the quantities of the additive were in Subway's bread. "I've asked the question to Subway and no response," she told ABCNews.com "Someone would have to test it."
ABCNews.com sent an email to the corporate communication director for Subway and called for comment several times, but did not get a response on the quantities of the additive.
Subway has also launched an ad blitz for the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, and has used celebrity athletes such as light heavyweight boxer Mike Lee in its TV ads. The company has also promoted its $5 foot-long sandwich in an ad that features former Olympic speed skater Apolo Ohno and Australian snowboarder Torah Bright.
Subway has pledged to spend $41 million over three years for its healthier kids menu with ads using the Muppets, according to Business Week. Its kids menu includes many healthy items, such as fruit, vegetables, non-sugary drinks and lean dairy products.
But commenters today on Subway's Facebook page were buzzing about Hari's petition. "Mmm, tasty, tasty," said one urging the company to remove the additive from its bread.
Case reports and epidemiological studies by the World Health Organization say that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers. "Adverse effects on other systems have not been studied," says its report on the additive. There have been no human studies.
Hari notes that in Singapore, companies can be fined up to $450,000 or jailed for using azodiacarbonamide in food products.
"What really broke the camel's back is when I realized Subway has reformulated its honey oat bread overseas and are using completely a different ingredient list that doesn't have the chemical. My question is, why can't we get the chemical out of our bread?"
"The power lies within the food companies to make changes quickly," she said. "You don't have to wait for the government. Many are already doing it. And they don't have to reinvent the wheel -- other countries around the world are -- to safeguard our health."
Hari was previously invited to meet with Chik-Fil-A leadership to consult on improvements in ingredients. She also petitioned Kraft to remove food dyes from its Mac & Cheese and last year they responded by removing all dyes from products aimed at children.