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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/28/2011

Is that right? The beef over Taco Bell meat

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

UPDATED 1/28/11 at 1:55 p.m. with information about Taco Bell's rebuttal print ads.

Does Taco Bell's meat filling contain enough beef to be called "beef"?


That's the question raised by a California woman who has hired an Alabama law firm to file a class-action lawsuit (this article contains a link to the PDF file) against the fast-food company. Her beef: The meat filling the chain uses in its tacos, burritos and other Mexican-inspired fare doesn't contain a high enough percentage of actual beef to be legally labeled "beef" according to USDA standards.

The suit alleges that Taco Bell refers to that filling as "seasoned beef" or "seasoned ground beef" in its communications with the outside world but in internal dealings calls it "taco meat filling." It claims that the filling contains very little beef, and the rest is made up of extenders. Taco Bell strongly denies the allegation, calling the suit "bogus."

Here's what the complaint says:

During the relevant time period plaintiff was exposed in California to defendant's advertising and labeling claims that the subject "beef" food items were filled with "seasoned ground beef" or "seasoned beef." Based on these representations, as well as the reasonable belief that defendant would accurately and honestly describe its products, plaintiff believed the taco meat filling was seasoned beef and, in reliance thereon, purchased the food items, thereby suffering injury in fact and losing money as a result of the alleged conduct. Plaintiff wanted to purchase beef-filled food items from Taco Bell, but did not receive what she believed she was purchasing.

Apparently the plaintiff isn't seeking money; she just wants Taco Bell to 'fess up and fix the situation.

Taco Bell has chimed in with a Web-site statement that says in part

The lawsuit is bogus and filled with completely inaccurate facts. Our beef is 100% USDA inspected, just like the quality beef you would buy in a supermarket and prepare in your home. It then is slow-cooked and simmered with proprietary seasonings and spices to provide Taco Bell's signature taste and texture. 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. There is no basis in fact or reality for this suit and we will vigorously defend the quality of our products from frivolous and misleading claims such as this.

Update: Today, Taco Bell ran print ads in three major U.S. newspapers rebutting the claims made in the lawsuit. The ads begin, "Thank you for suing us." Read more here.

I don't eat at Taco Bell myself, but I have had occasion to consult their Web site for nutrition information and have found it to be quite thorough. In fact, here's how it lists the ingredients for its "seasoned ground 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, 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

That doesn't look all that appetizing, but it also doesn't look to me as though the chain is trying to hide much. I agree that Taco Bell ought to use the correct terminology; if the legal proceedings reveal that the company should be calling its beef filling by another name, then so be it.

Your thoughts? Are you a fan of Taco Bell? What do you make of this law suit?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | January 28, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Food labeling, Is That Right?, Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

A bigger problem is that there is wheat hidden everywhere on the Taco Bell menu. If you have a gluten sensativity and each TB you might be up late for a different reason.

Posted by: 22207 | January 28, 2011 8:26 AM | Report abuse

A bigger problem is that there is wheat hidden everywhere on the Taco Bell menu. If you have a gluten sensativity and each TB you might be up late for a different reason.

Posted by: 22207 | January 28, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I've been Mexican-American all my life and have never even heard of an Encharito.I worked for Taco Bell as a teen in the early 80's And i remember makeing the ground beef from scracth, as well as the refried beans.At that time we only added a sesaoning packet to the beef.I dont consider Taco bell's food Mexican food at all.

Posted by: hymanortizarredondo | January 28, 2011 8:55 AM | Report abuse

I'm wondering whether, if the claims are true, TacoBell's "taco filling" would actually be "healthier" - i.e. lower calories and fat - then a filling with more actual beef? While I agree that calling something beef when it's only 35% meat is misleading, perhaps it's actually better for the consumers (other than those with wheat sensativities)? Any thoughts on that?

Posted by: mountainstategal | January 28, 2011 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Whether the product is actually healthier than 100% beef is beside the point. A website disclaimer is not going to be a sufficient defense given the amount of advertising on TV and in their stores that is allegedly false. If it is true that only 35% of the product is beef, I think they have problems. Interesting that it takes a private citizen and an attorney to bring this to light when I think most would assume the government (FDA) is monitoring what's in our food. It is apparent that we have totally ceded enforcement of consumer safety laws over to the private sector. It's ironic, the very people who decry lawsuits and lawyers are the same ones who perpetuate their usefulness.

Posted by: heelsfan92 | January 28, 2011 9:17 AM | Report abuse

Whether the product is actually healthier than 100% beef is beside the point. A website disclaimer is not going to be a sufficient defense given the amount of advertising on TV and in their stores that is allegedly false. If it is true that only 35% of the product is beef, I think they have problems. Interesting that it takes a private citizen and an attorney to bring this to light when I think most would assume the government (FDA) is monitoring what's in our food. It is apparent that we have totally ceded enforcement of consumer safety laws over to the private sector. It's ironic, the very people who decry lawsuits and lawyers are the same ones who perpetuate their usefulness.

Posted by: heelsfan92 | January 28, 2011 9:17 AM | Report abuse

The legal complaint as filed is not about 35% vs 40% beef, but about whether Taco Bell can call their filling "seasoned beef" instead of "beef filling" or "taco meat filling" when it contains some added water and a few other non-seasoning ingredients. This is discussed in "The Real Beef Behind the Lawsuit: Taco Bell and the Burden of Class Action Lawsuits on the Innovation Fatigue blog (http://www.innovationfatigue.com).

Posted by: Innov8 | January 28, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I used to teach a Catholic catechism class for adults. One student mentioned accidentally eating Taco Bell tacos on a Friday during Lent. Another student piped up, "That's OK, I used to work there, and it's not real meat."

Posted by: di89 | January 28, 2011 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Seriously...people...How does the FDA decide that 40% is enough to classify something "beef"? Who in the restaurant lobby made this something the FDA can be proud of standing behind?

Posted by: fmamstyle | January 28, 2011 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Amanda Obney is a great candidate for the "Stella Award". If you don't like the food just don't eat there. How much time does she have on her hands?

Posted by: bill61 | January 28, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I’m so tired of people trying to sue fastfood restaurants. When I order from a McDonalds or Taco Bell, I expect the food to be unhealthy and to not have 100% natural ingredients. That’s why they call it fast food. No one is forcing me to buy my meals from their establishment. It’s my choice - just like it is anybody else’s. http://foodiegossip.blogspot.com/2010/12/your-kid-is-fat-and-its-your-fault-you.html

Posted by: Kenna2 | January 28, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Kenna2 has it right. The problem is that lawsuits of this type get any traction at all. There was no "harm" - she evidently liked it enough to go back for more. I hope TB countersues and wins.

Posted by: tomj5 | January 28, 2011 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure the FDA had to fight just to have something labeled as beef, actually contain at least 40% beef. One can only imagine what passed for beef prior to this low standard.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | January 28, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

You would think the beef haters would appreciate the soy and grain fillers. It may even be healthier - like soy milk.

Who knows?

Posted by: GaryEMasters | January 28, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

I am sure my mother was not the only one to tell me you get what you pay for. If you want a high quality meal with all natural ingredients, go to a high quality restaurant or, even better, go home and cook it yourself. What did you expect when you got 3 tacos for a buck?

Posted by: WITW | January 28, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

i am going out for a chalupa

Posted by: captains2012 | January 28, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

Hear Rabbi Sol Solomon's thoughts on the Taco Bell controversy by visiting his blog of Rabbinical Reflections at shalomdammit.c0m.
The Rebbe's reflections air weekly on the Dave's Gone By radio program and are then posted as audio podcasts and text transcripts.
Look for: Rabbinical Reflection #003: Taco Bell

Posted by: shalomdammit | January 30, 2011 1:59 AM | Report abuse

I eat Taco Bell on a regular basis and it tastes and looks like beef to me. I think their food is always very good and satisfying. I personally think the lawsuit was started by a woman who likes to over indulge and didn't feel that she got enough meat in her taco.

Posted by: mf2964 | January 31, 2011 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Taco Bell claims that their ground beef is just like what you would buy at a grocery store and prepare at home. Only when I use ground beef at home, I don't need to shove fillers and chemicals in it to make it palatable/disguise the quality of the beef. And considering that Taco Bell buys its meat through Yum! Brands, a part of Tyson Foods, the meat is probably washed in ammonia, anyway.

Posted by: lnhowell88 | February 2, 2011 9:12 AM | Report abuse

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