A Beef with Taco Bell

January 29/Norfolk, Va./The Virginian-Pilot -- Taco Bell went big and bold to respond to a lawsuit claiming that its taco filling cannot be called beef, buying up newspaper ads that trumpet, "Thank you for suing us."

The company said it was setting the record straight with full-page ads in editions of the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and other papers and a YouTube campaign.

"Here's the truth about our seasoned beef," the ads said , declaring that the product is 88% ground beef, and the rest is a mixture of spices and common food additives. Taco Bell is fighting a claim that the meat filling is only 35% beef.

The lawsuit, filed last week in federal court in California, claims that calling Taco Bell's filling "seasoned beef" is false advertising. The suit alleges that the meat mixture has binders and extenders and does not meet federal requirements to be labeled beef.

Taco Bell denied those claims but went further by launching the advertising campaign after a week in which the story spread like wildfire, making national headlines, creating an Internet stir and even prompting a bit by comedian Stephen Colbert.

Experts say similar cases show that the tempest in a tortilla is unlikely to hurt Taco Bell's business, but the aggressive counter attack is drawing some attention.

"It is unusual for a company to take this on and challenge the allegations so boldly," said Gene Grabowski, chairman of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington. "A lot of companies are going to be watching how this turns out."

The tone and scope of the campaign indicate that Taco Bell is confident in its facts, Grabowski said. Companies typically shy away from taking facts public in a legal dispute .

The lawsuit, filed by the Alabama law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, does not specify what percentage of the mixture is meat. The lawyer on the case, Dee Miles, said the firm had the filling tested and found that it contained 35% beef. The firm would not say who tested the meat or give any other specifics of the analysis.

Taco Bell said the filling contains 88% USDA-inspected beef and that the rest is water, spices and a mixture of oats, starch and other ingredients that contribute to what it calls the "quality of its product."

The plaintiffs would have to prove that most diners believe they are getting something other than what Taco Bell serves. Most customers realize that taco meat has ingredients besides beef, said Marc Williams, an attorney at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough with extensive experience in fast-food litigation.

In addition, the lawsuit cites U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for labeling ground beef. The problem? They do not apply to restaurants. The USDA's rules apply to meat processors -- the companies Taco Bell buys its meat from.

Tyson Foods Inc., the company's largest meat supplier, said it mixes and cooks the meat at three USDA-inspected plants.

Experts say similar ingredients are used in many processed foods sold in stores.

"There is nothing really 'frankenfood' in here," said Karen Ansel, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "These are in a lot of foods we eat."

From the January 31, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News
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