Ireland’s top court says it knows what bread is, and the stuff Subway uses for its sandwiches isn’t it.
The amount of sugar used in the dough supplied by Subway and used in heated sandwiches exceeds the maximum level of sugar content for bread under Irish law, Supreme Court of Ireland Justice Donal O’Donnell said in a judgment Tuesday, part of a tax case involving one of the chain’s franchisees.
To be considered bread under the Value Added Tax Act, which dates to 1972, sugar can make up no more than 2% of the weight of the flour used to make dough for bread, according to the ruling. Bread that meets the definition isn’t taxed under the law.
Sugar makes up 10% of the weight of Subway’s flour in dough for the heated sandwiches, the judgment says.
“If one ingredient exceeds the limitation, the resulting product falls outside the definition of ‘bread’ for the purposes of the act,” Justice O’Donnell wrote.
He said his interpretation was consistent with common sense.
Subway, run by Milford, Conn.-based Doctor’s Associates Inc., took issue with the decision. The company stated that its bread “is, of course, bread.”
“We have been baking fresh bread in our stores for more than three decades and our guests return each day for sandwiches made on bread that smells as good as it tastes,” according to a statement provided by the company.
News of the judgment ricocheted around the world, forcing sandwich aficionados to think through their understanding of bread and parse out the definition between the sandwich carbohydrate and dessert.
“Sugary bread is not statutory bread. Only statutory bread can get the favourable tax treatment,” Emer Hunt, a lecturer in tax law at University College Dublin’s Sutherland School of Law, said in an email.
But Phil Hamilton, who lives near St. Louis, said it is clear what is on offer when customers get asked if they want wheat or white bread at Subway locations.
“In colloquial form, everyone in the world considers those two forms bread,” he said
Oonagh Monahan, a food scientist and author in Ireland, said she worried the ruling could confuse consumers, noting that most breads don’t have any added sugars. “What the legislation says and what people think it is might not be the same thing,” she said.
The ruling Thursday is tied to a tax dispute that began in 2006, when a franchisee that operated a Subway location in Galway sought a refund for certain taxes it paid during the previous two years.
Chris Talbot, who said he previously owned the Galway store involved in the case, said, “We’re exploring our options with the verdict.”
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