Saturday, January 29, 2011

Why No One Should Be Reassured That Taco Bell’s Tacos Are Made With “88% Beef”

A bizarre food lawsuit came to light this week. A consumer in California is suing Taco Bell for mislabeling its beef tacos. Taco Bell is threatening to countersue over the claim. Taco Bell will not be able to countersue, however, as no one would have heard about the suit but for Taco Bell’s own aggressive publicity surrounding it, which includes a press release and full-page ads in multiple newspapers (well, and Stephen Colbert’s subsequent take on the controversy). It makes you wonder if Taco Bell could have somehow created the lawsuit against it as a kind of publicity stunt. Taco Bell has been known for bizarre advertising schemes in the past, including one ad in which it claimed, as a joke, to have acquired the naming rights for the Liberty Bell. Taco Bell is also known for having problems with its food ingredients. A decade ago, it vehemently denied a report that its taco shells contained traces of a variety of corn that wasn’t fit for human consumption, only to have other laboratories confirm that test result. With that history, Taco Bell’s knee-jerk denials of laboratory tests don’t have much credibility.

But the lawsuit in this case doesn’t have much credibility either. It complains that Taco Bell’s beef can’t correctly be called beef because the spice mix included in it contains ingredients that aren’t spices. This appears to be an attempt to apply an FDA food labeling regulation to an issue of restaurant food naming, while simultaneously failing to apply FDA food labeling rules about spices. If so, that’s just a series of mistakes from someone who doesn’t know the first thing about food law.

But there is a real question about what is in Taco Bell’s seasoned beef. Taco Bell assures us that the meat part is “100% beef” and the cooked product is “88% beef.” But the laboratory that tested for the plaintiff’s law firm found only about 1/3 beef.

It’s important to pause here and point out that 1/3 beef is not necessarily inferior to 88% beef. Beef is, after all, the food most associated with mad cow disease, an issue that the United States has been dodging, rather than addressing, for more than a decade. Mad cow disease is a horrifying disease that slowly turns a human brain into a sponge, until it no longer functions at all and the victim dies. It is believed that humans contract mad cow disease primarily by eating hamburgers (and other forms of beef) made from cows that had the disease. Of course, if beef is not thoroughly cooked, there are quite a few other diseases it might carry. Also, quite apart from any risk of disease, beef is junk food, with minimal nutritional value and a fair amount of stuff that tends to gunk up the inside of a person’s body. So if you have a choice between one meat loaf that is 88 percent beef and another that is 33 percent beef, you might well choose the one that is 33 percent beef. It depends, of course, on what else is in the meat loaf. Fake meat can be junk food too.

This isn’t that much of an issue in the Taco Bell controversy. Most of the tacos you can get there don’t contain any beef, so people who are really looking for food have better options anyway, even within the context of Taco Bell.

If the story resonates so well, it is because consumers know that the price of beef has gone up, and it is easy to imagine a restaurant looking for ways to cut down on its food costs by putting less and less beef in the beef recipe until there is hardly any beef left. And given the decentralized management of most restaurant chains, with a manager for every location, it is easy to imagine an unscrupulous local manager altering the recipe and an unscrupulous regional manager looking the other way.

You wonder about the good sense of Taco Bell brand executives in not pausing to look into this possibility before firing back in the most public way possible. The corn scandal permanently tarnished the Taco Bell name. It might take only one more highly public scandal to force them to retire the name. In other words, this might be it.

But there is a problem with the theory of Taco Bell’s beef being cheapened with some kind of cheaper meat. What cheaper meat? You cannot go into the supermarket and find any cheaper substitute for ground beef. There aren’t any cheaper meats unless you’re willing to look at things that you wouldn’t really call meat. Even the imitation beef that some vegetarians like to eat costs more than ground beef — about three times as much, actually. Ground beef is already a cheap substitute for meat. There is no cheap substitute for ground beef.

If you’ll permit me to speculate, I believe Taco Bell’s beef is being cheapened in the same way all commercial beef is cheapened. Beef cattle, I am told, put on more than half of their weight during the last three weeks of their lives, as they are fed huge amounts of corn and other grains in feed lots in preparation for slaughter. This extra weight that beef cattle put on doesn’t create “real” beef. According to food experts, the cattle don’t have time to fully assimilate all the corn they eat in their final days, so that it becomes a sort of “corn filler” that is a big part of all conventional beef. This is one of the reasons why current commercial beef has so little flavor. The corn in question even shows up in lab tests, and perhaps this is all that the lab tests are finding in this case. If they are comparing the proteins of commercial beef to reference values measured from the “real beef” of half a century ago, of course they’re going to find the chemical signature of corn alongside that of beef. “You are what you eat” applies to beef cattle too.

Or maybe I’m completely wrong about this, and the law firm’s laboratory properly compared the Taco Bell beef to other commercial beef. Regardless of how the facts play out, Taco Bell’s carpet-bombing approach to publicizing this issue has left millions of people wondering whether it is safe to eat Taco Bell’s beef tacos. If this is a question on your mind, the answer is the same as for any other kind of fast food. Fast food is not known as a particularly healthy form of food. You should try to do better.