The Taco Bell Beef Suit: Not All Processed Foods Are Evil

Taco Bell
Taco Bell

Too many undercooked, beef-related puns have been loping around the news media lately -- thanks to a consumer-rights class-action recently filed against Taco Bell (YUM) by an Alabama law firm. According to the complaint, most of what Taco Bell calls "seasoned ground beef" in its ads has hardly any meat in it all – containing mostly fillers such as "isolated oat product," yeast extract, corn starch and other ingredients. That would put Taco Bell's beef below the 40% meat requirement for what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines as "taco meat filling."

But the fast food giant is fighting back. "The lawsuit is bogus and filled with completely inaccurate facts," says a recent Taco Bell statement. "Our seasoned beef recipe contains 88% quality USDA-inspected beef and 12% seasonings, spices, water and other ingredients that provide taste, texture and moisture. The lawyers got their facts wrong. We take this attack on our quality very seriously and plan to take legal action against them for making false statements about our products."

What's in Processed Meats?

The media is mostly portraying this as a dispute over possible false advertising -- but the Taco Bell story also adds fuel to ongoing arguments over processed meat in general. McDonald's (MCD), for example, added healthier items to its menu after getting unwanted attention about some of its ingredients following the 2004 movie documentary Super-Size Me.

Controversies over processed meats have been in the news for years now -- over issues like the growing use of corn in U.S. food products and the dangers of too much salt, fat and preservatives. But some observers believe it's not necessarily fair to single out Taco Bell over its ingredients.

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"Consumers are not completely aware of the ingredients that go into processed meat items," says Dale Woerner, a professor at the Center for Meat Safety and Quality at Colorado State University's College of Agricultural Sciences. Woerner calls on consumers to read the labels on food products. Most processed meats, he says, contain processed proteins from grains like soy, wheat and rice – which reduce fat content.

And while those non-meat proteins are less expensive and certainly can help a company's bottom line, Woerner says most of those added ingredients have a purpose and not just as filler. "I'm talking about the tenderness or consistency of that product," he notes, "the moisture that that product maintains to give a pleasant eating experience, and also the flavor."

Expecting the Same Burger, Coast-to-Coast

Part of the problem may be that Americans have become accustomed to uniformity in their meals. Most folks expect a burger purchased from a major fast-food chain to taste the same, coast-to-coast, no matter where in the country (or in the world, for that matter) you buy it.

That uniformity, says Woerner, prompts processed-meat producers to work hard at keeping customers happy. "All of these things are factored into a least-cost formulation," he says, "but they're also driven toward a specification for quality. I'm certain, for example, that Taco Bell has done millions of dollars of research on ingredients, and ultimately they are producing a product that's demanded by their customers; in the way of flavor, functionality, mouth-feel, etc."

Consumers, however, are rapidly changing and becoming more health-conscious. As a result, chances are good that even if your guilty pleasure is a quick burger at a fast-food chain, you're going to be getting some nontraditional, low-fat ingredients mixed in with your beef. And for the record, Woerner believes Taco Bell's side of the story.