That’s a big difference, no?

By now, many of you may have heard the news that a law firm in Alabama sued Taco Bell for false advertising, alleging:

what Taco Bells calls “ground beef” does not meet the USDA’s definition of beef flesh of cattle and should instead be dubbed “taco meat filling.”

The lawsuit claims the beef content of Taco Bell’s is actually only 35% and that in addition to seasonings, the beef contains extenders and other non-meat substances like water, “Isolated Oat Product,” wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate.

What followed was a flurry of several days of bad press for Taco Bell, as bloggers and media reported on the news that Taco Bell may be serving us a whole lot of crap under the guise of beef. But something interesting happened on the way to an anti-Taco Bell consensus: Taco Bell fought back.

In 2009, the infamous Domino’s gross out videos caught the Ann Arbor based chain flat-footed – in large part because they lacked an active Facebook page or Twitter handle through which to respond. A year and a half after that learning moment for many fast food chains, Taco Bell had a social media system in place which gave them a mouthpiece to leverage to quickly spread a strong response statement.

And respond they did. Just a few days after news of the lawsuit broke, Taco Bell utilized its Facebook page, Twitter handle and ads in national newspapers to fight back. . I even had an e-mail in my inbox from Taco Bell touting its newspaper ads and giving me the real truth about its beef. This indicates that in addition to a Facebook page and Twitter handle, Taco Bell also had a food/media blogger PR list at the ready to ensure this information went directly to the inboxes of influencers around the country.

Releasing a strongly-worded defense of its product, Taco Bell’s ad featured the headline “Thank You For Suing Us” and then went on to explain why the lawsuit was way off base, arguing that Taco Bell’s ground beef, after the addition of water and seasonings was actually 88% beef – a far cry from the 35% the lawsuit claims.

The company didn’t ignore the charges, nor did they release a quick statement then try to change the subject. Over the past week the company has posted multiple follow-ups on its Facebook and Twitter pages, linking to interviews with the company’s President and even a Colbert Report segment on the controversy. The underlying message: we have nothing to hide.

Taco Bell did about as admirable a job as could be expected given the circumstances. My hat is off to its PR and social media teams. This from a guy who has done his fair share of mocking Taco Bell. Even though it came a couple days after the story first broke, Taco Bell crafted a strong, forceful and believable response statement, using a language and tone that ensured bloggers would provide follow-up coverage and social media users would take notice. It also doesn’t hurt to have an audience of more than 5 million Facebook fans to speak to directly and unfiltered.

But 88% beef vs. 35% beef? That’s a HUGE difference. Clearly either the Alabama lawsuit has its facts/science wrong or Taco Bell is lying to us. So who is right?

I’m gonna go with Taco Bell. They’ve staked too much of the company’s reputation on this forcefully worded defense, and they know better than anyone else what the beef breakdown of the meat they serve actually is. If they are lying or fudging the numbers, it can be proved wrong very easily, and the company will lose face and a lot of credibility. I’m not sure what kind of scientists this law firm used, but I’m skeptical. That being said, there is some merit to the lawsuit and some valid points. Consumerist reports that according to the USDA definition cited in the lawsuit:

to be called “ground beef,” the product must “consist of chopped fresh and/or frozen beef with or without seasoning and without the addition of beef fat as such, shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water­phosphates, binders, or extenders.”

Taco Bell, by its own admission, adds water to its beef, as well as phosphates, binders and extenders such as oats. Which means Taco Bell is not meeting the technical definition of ground beef. Although those USDA rules seem to be aimed more at meat manufacturers than at actual restaurants.

We’ve all had a tasty taco or burger made at home or at hundreds of different restaurants that consists of nothing added to the beef except seasoning. It’s no surprise to most of us that Taco Bell’s production and distribution requires them to use all sorts of preservatives and binders, this is Taco Bell after all, not a farm-to-table dinner. So while the company may not be using the same ingredients you use at home, experts say Taco Bell hasn’t broken any advertising rules, and the ingredients are what you’d expect from a fast food company.

Taco Bell made the right decision to push back forcefully, and they did so in an effective fashion. But just because their beef ingredients are “what you’d expect from a fast food company” doesn’t mean we have to like it. There are plenty of non-fast food chains that make better tasting food without all the additives. We were already skeptical of the company’s ingredients. Now we’re more sure than ever that Taco Bell is serving a bit of  junk mixed in with that beef.

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2 Responses

  1. social.media@foodem.com'
    Foodem.com

    Even if Taco Bell is serving additives within its beef they’re still knocking the competition out of the ball park- they came in 6th on QSR’s 2010 list of fast food restaurants. I’d agree that Taco Bell’s transparency is admirable but if they have already managed to consistently maintain that amount of the market, chances are they don’t have much to lose, either.

    Reply
  2. whitb95@gmail.com'
    Whit

    Ugh…between the “Super Size Me” documentary aimed at McDonald’s, the mentioned Domino’s gross-out, and now this with Taco Bell, I think I’m just about put off fast food for good. I mean, I don’t think any of us were under the illusion that these chains were “good” for us, but once you start really seeing the lists of ingredients and the hard numbers, fast food burgers & tacos quickly go from “well, it ain’t a salad…oh well” to “omg, what am I even eating??” I don’t see myself giving up junk food treats, but I think I’ll start making them at home, with 100% real and sanitary EVERYTHING.

    Reply

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