Column by Michael Kleen.
Exclusive to STR
By all accounts, Taco Bell is a story of success. Since Glen Bell opened the first Taco Bell in Downey, California in 1962, the franchise has expanded to 6,446 restaurants with over 175,000 employees worldwide. In 2009, the company (which is currently owned by Yum! Brands) brought in $1.9 billion in revenue. It is no secret why this restaurant has experienced such growth. Like its rivals in the fast food industry, Taco Bell specializes in offering meals to its customers at the cheapest possible price. Today, the company is under attack by a publicity-seeking law firm and a media that is all-too-eager to exploit any potential controversy, no matter how frivolous. What should be a story about how a private business feeds millions of people for what amounts to pocket change is instead a pseudo-investigation into what qualifies as ground beef.
No one has ever gone into a Taco Bell under the illusion that they were purchasing quality food, because we are all aware that you cannot stuff 460 calories into a burrito and charge 99 cents without sacrificing something. Its cheapness is the foundation of its appeal, and even the company acknowledges this fact with its advertising slogans “Big Variety, Small Price,” and “Why Pay More?” The choice to offer quantity over quality has not come without damage to its reputation, however. For years, people have made jokes about the poor quality of their food and speculated about “what was really in the meat,” but over 36.8 million customers in the United States continue to eat there every week anyway.
On January 19, Montgomery-based law firm Beasley Allen filed a class action lawsuit in a California court alleging that Taco Bell’s beef does not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s minimum requirements to be defined as “beef,” and that therefore the company is guilty of false advertising. Taking actions that I myself have advocated in a previous column , Beasley Allen had Taco Bell’s “meat mixture” independently tested and found it to contain less than 35 percent beef. Other ingredients include water, wheat oats, soy, maltodextrin, anti-dusting agent, corn starch, and silicon dioxide. Wheat oats and soy are both perfectly edible and inoffensive, and maltodextrin (though it sounds bad) is a food additive made from starch found in dried taco seasoning as well as soda, candy, and even beer. Silicon dioxide is a common food additive used to prevent ingredients from coagulating.
Unlike lawsuits related to food safety, however, this particular lawsuit is a farcical use of the legal system with no basis in consumer protection. On its website, Taco Bell displays all ingredients, along with nutrition information, for every item on the menu. There is no secret to what is in its “meat mixture.” The only real basis for this lawsuit, the 35 percent ratio of beef to other ingredients, involves, frankly, a bizarre and arbitrary guideline established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which allows for at least 40 percent meat in any products labeled “meat.” Once you allow for anything less than 100 percent of a product to be defined as that product, what does it really matter what percentage it is? According to the USDA, I could concoct a mixture consisting of 40 percent ground beef and 60 percent cookie dough and call it meat. This says more about uselessness of the USDA as a regulatory body than it does about Taco Bell’s ingredients.
As a company, Taco Bell is transparent about its products. Anyone at any time can go on its website, or do a little research, and find out what is being stuffed in their tacos. None of the ingredients are harmful, and no one has ever been led to believe that they are eating a gourmet meal when they go there. Ground beef is expensive, and so fillers like wheat and soy are mixed in to get the most out of their product. That is why a taco at Taco Bell is so much cheaper than one at Chipotle. One restaurant offers quantity and the other offers quality, but you get what you pay for and there is plenty of room in the marketplace for both.
We should be celebrating the fact that innovation and entrepreneurship has brought a wide variety of food options to the table for people of all economic backgrounds, and not attacking a company for providing cheap food at a cheap price. Instead, law firms should focus their litigation on serious issues of food safety and workplace standards in fast food establishments. How much beef is in a Taco Bell taco? Less than 99 cents worth, and that’s all anyone has ever paid for.