• There’s beef in Taco Bell’s “taco meat filling,” but does that make it “beef”? Friday, February 18, 2011

    “We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef,” the president and chief concept officer (honest) of Taco Bell says about the “seasoned beef” in their menu items.

    But when they finish, can they call it beef?

    On the Taco Bell web site, various menu items are described as containing "seasoned ground beef." Just how much of that is actually beef is a matter of dispute.

    That’s the question raised in a class action lawsuit filed in federal court in Southern California, where Taco Bell has its headquarters. The suit asks Taco Bell to stop using the word “beef” in advertising its products that include ground beef in their ingredients, and “to engage in a corrective advertising campaign to educate the public about the true content of its food products.”

    What is that content? According to the suit, the substance is more accurately described as “taco meat filling” that “mostly consists of ‘extenders’ and other non-meat substances.”

    “You shouldn’t be told you’re eating one thing when it’s something more,” said Tim Blood, one of the attorneys representing the class.  “They’re saying or implying it’s 100 percent beef when it’s not. People have a right to know what they’re eating.”

    Blood said some customers don’t realize there’s more than beef in what they’ve eaten until they get sick. “I can’t tell you how many phone calls and e-mails we’ve received from people who had allergic reactions to Taco Bell’s beef tacos, only they’re not allergic to beef,” he said. “But they are allergic to wheat or soy, which are used in what Taco Bell calls its ‘seasonings.’ People have allergies, and that’s dangerous.”

    The label from a container of the product that is shipped to Taco Bell restaurants as "taco meat filling" but promoted to customers as "seasoned ground beef."

    The suit does not accuse Taco Bell of misrepresenting its meat products across the board. “The ‘chicken’ and ‘carne asada steak’ served by Taco Bell is, in fact, chicken or carne asada steak,” according to the complaint. “The ‘seasoned beef,’ however, is not beef.”

    Apparently there is no government regulation on what can be called “beef” at a restaurant. The plaintiffs in Obney v. Taco Bell Corporation say Taco Bell’s product “does not conform to customers’ reasonable expectation or ordinary meaning” of beef. The complaint refers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulation that says ground beef “shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.” The ingredients for “Seasoned Ground Beef” on the Taco Bell website include water and phosphates plus products that seem to act as binders and extenders.

    In his response to the lawsuit, Taco Bell’s Greg Creed, the aforementioned “president and chief concept officer,” said the company’s seasoned beef recipe includes “88% USDA-inspected quality beef.” (“The fact that they’ve already admitted 88 percent tells you something right there,” Blood said.) Creed says the remaining content is water (“for moisture”), spices, and “oats, starch, sugar, yeast, citric acid, and other ingredients that contribute to the quality of our product.”

    As Blood told ABC News, “”Food additives such as isolated oat product, wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agents, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate are neither beef nor spices.”Is it possible for outsiders to determine what’s really in the “seasoned beef”? Reporter Carl Bialik of The Wall Street Journal wrote:

    Restaurants’ food-content claims can be difficult to verify….Federal regulations don’t require restaurants to disclose such information, and there are no rules stipulating minimum meat content in menu items….

    …without regulatory guidance, and with no reliable outside tests, it is up to the restaurants to decide how much meat to put in their meat items, and whether to disclose that percentage.

    The lawsuit points out that, while Taco Bell advertises its products as containing “seasoned ground beef,” the material is actually shipped to its restaurants in containers labelled “taco meat filling,” in line with what how the substance would likely have to be labeled if it were sold at retail. The USDA says such a product “must contain at least 40 percent fresh meat” and have a label that shows “the true product name, e.g., ‘Taco Filling With Meat,’ ‘Beef Taco Filling’ or ‘Taco Meat Filling.'” (See Page 183 of the USDA’s Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book.”)

    One of the odd reactions to the lawsuit is best expressed by the headline on the post on a popular legal blog, Above The Law: “You Didn’t Really Think You Were Eating ‘Beef’ At Taco Bell, Did You?” A number of commenters dismiss those who eat at Taco Bell as being cheap, drunk or hung over, with a tone that suggests they deserve whatever they get and don’t deserve to know what it is. Elie Mystal writes in the Above The Law post:

    What did you expect for 89 cents a taco? Taco Bell is why even homeless Americans don’t starve to death. I’m just happy the complaint claims Taco Bell is using ‘isolated oat product’ as opposed to urban roadkill meat….But count me as one customer who doesn’t really care what’s in the fillings. Whatever it is, it’s not people. It doesn’t give you Ebola.

    Mystal is a very funny writer (and a graduate of Harvard Law School who says he loves Taco Bell). But false advertising claims shouldn’t be distinguished based on the the price of the item.

    For another humorist’s take…Stephen Colbert devoted a segment to the case on his Comedy Central program and said, “On a scale of 1 to beef…it’s got something in there”:

    The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
    Gordita Supreme Court
    Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

    Taco Bell’s Greg Creed promises “to take legal action [against the attorneys who filed the class action suit] for the false statements being made about our food.” We’ll let you know when that happens.

    –J.G. Preston

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