¿Dónde está la carne?

This may very well become the greatest advertising battle ever.  EVER!

As you have probably heard by now, Taco Bell is steaming mad over a lawsuit alleging that its beef isn’t beef, and has responded to the lawsuit by taking out an ad slamming the claim as “absolutely false.”  In a full-page ad appearing in prominent newspapers on Friday, Taco Bell proclaimed, “Thank you for suing us.”

“Our reputation’s been falsely tarnished,” said Greg Creed, Taco Bell’s president. He told CNNMoney that he’s meeting with outside counsel to possibly take legal action on these “egregious” accusations against his beef.  “We clearly take this very seriously,” he said, noting that a decision on legal action will be made in the next week. “We’re reacting to this onslaught against our food and reputation.”

According to CNN Money, the fast-food company said that its beef is “100% USDA inspected,” and insisted that its meat mix is “88% beef and 12% Secret Recipe.” But the lawsuit, filed in federal court within the Central District of California, claims that the mix is about one-third beef.  “We would like Taco Bell to stop referring to its products as beef products, when in fact they’re not beef products,” said the plaintiff’s lawyer, Dee Miles, to CNN’s Jeanne Moos.  Based on lab tests, the law firm said that Taco Bell’s “beef” was actually less than 35% beef.

“Their number is so wrong, it’s ludicrous,” Creed said.

Taco Bell retorted to the “where’s the beef” claim, with ads that reveal the contents of what the company calls its “not-so-secret recipe.”  “We start with USDA-inspected quality beef (88%),” Taco Bell said in an ad signed by company president Greg Creed. “Then add water to keep it juicy and moist (3%). Mix in Mexican spices and flavors including salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, sugar, garlic powder and cocoa powder (4%). Combine a little oats, caramelized sugar, yeast, citric acid and other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency and quality of our seasoned beef.”  Creed said the company’s beef content information was on their website prior to the filing of the lawsuit.

What I really love is that Taco Bell doesn’t even claim it’s all beef.  First of all, according to the USDA, beef isn’t all meat anyway – it can have up to 30% of beef fat, which means that 88% of the mix from Taco Bell isn’t exactly accurate.  Also, Taco Bell adds water, but in making ground beef, some retail stores grind the meat while it is still frozen. Ice crystals in the frozen meat break down the cell walls, permitting the release of meat juices during cooking. The same thing happens after ground meat is frozen at home.

You don’t have to take my word for it – check out the USDA rules.  My science point is that while the Taco Bell recipe may call for 88% ground beef, that doesn’t mean the stuff in your taco is 88% ground beef.  Or maybe it is – I don’t want to get sued by Taco Bell, so I’ll just say that there may be a testing methodology issue at play here as well.

Anyway, skipping all the science of meat processing, I think what is most interesting about all of this is the Taco Bell response.  I think it’s great that they are going public and trying to get the upper hand in the lawsuit.  However, I’m just not sure of the target audience.  I mean, do you really think that the heavy user of Taco Bell thinks that they were getting healthy food?  I know that the next time I’m walking home from a bar at 2 a.m. that I’ll be sure to skip “fourth meal,” since the $5 big box is not veal, like I thought it was.

It seems to me that the target audience of the ads is really the Mom that may, on rare occasion, allow the family a Taco Bell meal.  Mom, who was already a little apprehensive about feeding kids Taco Bell, is suddenly pushed to the other side by the thought that the kids aren’t even getting meat.  Instead of trying to sway those Moms with a “yes it is too beef” argument, the tactic is to threaten a lawsuit and proudly announce that you are 88% (suspect) beef.  Seriously?

My wife is one of those reluctant Moms.  She didn’t believe the 35% claim at all – ignored it.  However, now she is acutely aware of 88% and that’s bothering her more than the 35% number.  I suspect that my 6-year-old will be missing out on Taco Bell for awhile, because she doesn’t want him to eat oats and flavoring and other stuff.  I, however, don’t care.  Partly because I usually get steak or chicken “whatever” and partly because it never occurred to me that it was anything but meat mixed with other stuff.

The only thing I am sure of is that this is going to be fun to watch.

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