Last week, I reported on one Alabama law firm's lawsuit against Taco Bell in what has become a national news story...
Montgomery-based firm Beasley Allen accused the fast food purveyor of misleading consumers by calling its meat product "ground beef" in advertisements and menus, when in fact the ingredients in Taco Bell's "ground beef" a) do not meet the USDA definition of ground beef; nor b) are they made up of more than 36% of what can be defined as coming from cattle.
Since the story made national news, went viral on social media sites, and was even the subject of a Stephen Colbert spoof last week, Taco Bell took action to defend its reputation and its "quality beef."
The company took out full-page ads in nine major newspapers — including the Wall Street Journal and USA Today — to shout from the rooftops that not only are they the victim of false accusations; but that 88% of their ground beef is actually beef, not the alleged 36%.
Taco Bell maintains the remaining content of the product is a combination of spices and common food additives found in many processed food found in grocery stores.
My article was posted on Facebook and Twitter, and I received feedback from readers, including one former Taco Bell employee who was willing to attest to the fact that food preparation at the chain was enough to make her quit her job*:
I worked at Taco Bell for an hour. An HOUR. I watched how they made the beef, then, still in my new uniform, I said I had to get something out of my car, got in the car, and drove away...
And it wasn't so much what was in the mix — though I'm pretty sure anti-dusting agents aren't on MY food pyramid... It was the way they added grease, then constantly spooned it over the mix to keep it "fresh-looking."
Regardless of the outcome of this case, which has been filed in federal court in California, my unease lies in the following...
The day after the article was published on Green Chip Living, I received the following statement from a representative of Taco Bell:
TACO BELL STATEMENT REGARDING CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT
At Taco Bell, we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods. We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture. We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website. Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later — and got their “facts” absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food.
— Greg Creed, President and Chief Concept Officer, Taco Bell Corp.
The following is an excerpt from my response to this e-mail. I am still awaiting response and clarification.
Seasoned Ground Beef is listed as containing the following:
Beef, Water, Seasoning [Isolated Oat Product, Salt, Chili Pepper, Onion Powder, Tomato Powder, Oats (Wheat), Soy Lecithin, Sugar, Spices, Maltodextrin, Soybean Oil (Anti-dusting Agent), Garlic Powder, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Silicon Dioxide, Natural Flavors, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Smoke Flavor], Salt, Sodium Phosphates. CONTAINS SOYBEAN, WHEAT
What percentage of Tyson's beef is actually in your Seasoned Ground Beef product?
Nowhere does this ingredient list mention percentage of content...
My article contends not the quality of the beef that you are using in the initial preparation of the taco meat; but that more than one-third (or 36%, as I found from numerous sources) of a food must be made up of a certain ingredient in order for it to be called as much in advertising and in menus.
If the "facts" put forth by Beasley Allen are "absolutely wrong," could you please provide me the correct information?
Amidst Taco Bell's defense of its product lurks a bigger problem...
According to Yahoo Finance!, experts say the lawsuit will hardly hurt Taco Bell's business, regardless of whether or not the company goes to great lengths to clear its name and defend the ingredients in its products.
Seems consumers aren't nearly as concerned with what's in their food as what's not. If it's cheap and hot and tasty, that'll do.
A technicality that lies in favor of Taco Bell is that Beasley Allen's main case cites the USDA's guidelines for ground beef. These same guidelines do not apply to restaurants or fast food chains; they apply to the meat processors from which restaurants (like Taco Bell) buy meat from.
Again, the bigger problem: where Americans eat.
USDA regulations don't apply to restaurants, only to where they get their food. And Americans are getting an increasing percentage of their food from... restaurants.
The USDA reports: "The number of Americans who eat away from home has steadily increased since the question was first surveyed in 1965... The increase is across all age and gender groups but is most apparent for young children and women."
A USDA study from 1996 found the number of Americans who eat at least one food or beverage obtained away from home in the course of a day jumped 33% in twenty year's time.
In 2006, just ten years later, Business Wire reported a Research and Markets study saying Americans eat out nearly one out of every four meals and snacks, spending almost half their food budgets on dining out...
Whether or not Taco Bell's beef is made with one filler or extender or another, or the company can prove that they're stuffing taco shells with a substance qualified to be named "beef," the choices people make for nutrition is the bigger issue in this entire case.
Perhaps the most revealing fact is a statement quoted by a registered dietician in Yahoo! Finance regarding Taco Bell's beef...
"There is nothing really Frankenfood in here," said Karen Ansel, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"If they eat this, it is no worse for them than what they are getting anywhere else."
We should, perhaps, focus on a the case for "anywhere else."
*Account from a former employee of an Omaha, Nebraska, franchise. Permission granted by individual for use in this article.