Update below original post.
It’s one thing for fast food companies to dangle cartoon characters in front of kids to pitch junk food. That practice arguably amounts to deceptive advertising, but don’t expect a legal crackdown on it anytime soon. But what about falsely claiming your product is something that it isn’t? According to a class-action lawsuit filed yesterday by an Alabama law firm, Taco Bell is doing just that with its “seasoned beef” products. Evidently, what Taco Bell identifies as “seasoned beef” has so many binders and extenders that it fails the minimum USDA labeling requirements for beef products (via ABC News). The suit claims that the law firms’ tests showed that Taco Bell’s “meat mixture” contains less that 35 percent beef. The suit isn’t seeking monetary damages, just that Taco Bell stop calling its concoction “beef.”
All of this calls to mind the the great “pink slime” debacle — the revelation that a huge portion of U.S. “hamburger meat” contains an ammonia-treated beef filler that turned out not to have the antiseptic properties its maker claimed. At the time, many fast food chains quickly claimed that pink slime made up just a small percentage of their ground-beef mixes. Taco Bell never commented on whether it was using the stuff. The company’s official ingredient list for “seasoned beef” doesn’t include “ammonia-treated puréed beef trimmings,” though the notorious product theoretically could be present under the rubric of “beef.” For the record, here’s the official ingredient list for Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef”:
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, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Silicon Dioxide, Natural Flavors, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Smoke Flavor], Salt, Sodium Phosphate
But the best part of this story (which I can’t imagine surprises anyone) is Taco Bell’s response to the lawsuit through a spokesperson:
“Taco Bell prides itself on serving high-quality Mexican-inspired food with great value. We’re happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree,” Poetsch said. He said the company would “vigorously defend the suit.”
That, my friends, is what we call a non-denial denial. Sure, they will send a vigorous team of lawyers to court. But Taco Bell very clearly avoided that use of the word “beef” in their statement — if the lawsuit were truly frivolous, you might expect them to, I don’t know, deny the charges. Taco Bell, you just gave up the game right there.
UPDATED 5 p.m.: Our good friends at Taco Bell wish to revise and extend their earlier remarks regarding their beef. And, make no mistake, they’re willing to say “beef” loud and proud! In an email Tuesday afternoon, Taco Bell President and Chief Concept Officer (!) Greg Creed wrote:
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.
That’s more like it, guys! Those crisis management consultants sure do earn their keep! But might I humbly submit that it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that things like “Oats (Wheat)” (whatever that is), Soy Lecithin, “Soybean Oil (Anti-Dusting Agent),” Silicon Dioxide (isn’t that sand?), Yeast, and Modified Corn Starch are “seasonings.” Proprietary blend, I’m sure, but that stuff sounds an awful lot like fillers to me.
As to the claim that the lawyers got their “facts” wrong (quotes? really?), Taco Bell didn’t say which facts it is disputing. For example, still no mention of whether that 100 percent pure USDA beef ends up as 35 percent USDA beef after they add their “seasonings.” Whaddya say, Taco Bell? Is it more than 35 percent beef or not? In the words of that great savant Judge Elihu Smails, “Well? We’re waiting?”