The late-night crowd knows all too well the allure of Taco Bell's piping-hot creations. But is it really ground beef they're putting in that beef meximelt?
That's the question at the heart of a lawsuit filed recently by the Montgomery, Alabama-based law firm Beasley Allen.
The standard for what constitutes meat as defined by the USDA is pretty straightforward: "flesh of animals." In the "Food Facts" section of its website, Taco Bell says the following about its beef: "Our taco meat is made from USDA-inspected beef and is subjected to quality check points. It tastes great because it's simmered in 12 authentic seasonings and spices and is never frozen. Moreover, our taco meat is leaner than what you'll find in a restaurant-cooked hamburger because of the unique way that we prepare our taco meat and remove fat." But Beasley Allen contends that the company's claims are untrue.
"Rather than beef, these food items are actually made with a substance known as 'taco meat filling,' " the lawsuit says. The firm contends that that Taco Bell shouldn't market the taco meat filling in question as beef because their testing shows that it only contains 36 percent ground beef. If that's true, Taco Bell's meat filling product would fall below the already generous USDA standard for it to qualify as meat -- the present standard demands it consist of at least 40 percent meat. This inspired Gizmodo's Jesus Diaz to crack, "Perhaps they should call it 'Almost Taco Meat Filling.'"
The remainder of the Taco Bell's meat filling product consists of "extenders" like water, "Isolated Oat Product," wheat oats, maltodrextrin, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch, sodium phosphate and silicon dioxide.
Taco Bell actually addresses its use if silicon dioxide in the "Food Facts" section of its website under the question, "I heard a rumor that there's sand in your taco meat?" It then goes on to explain that silicone dioxide is "a safe, common food ingredient" that's "primarily used in food to prevent ingredients from sticking together."
In response, Taco Bell has issued a statement insisting that the suit is unfounded: "Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We're happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree. We deny our advertising is misleading in any way and we intend to vigorously defend the suit."
In any event, the lawsuit's appetite-squelching accusations are likely to provide plenty of unadulterated fodder for late night comedians. "Late Show with David Letterman" head writer Eric Stangel was already making Taco Bell jokes on his Twitter page this morning, cracking that because of the lawsuit we're all finally "about to find out where the Taco Bell Chihuahua went."
UPDATE: Taco Bell President and Chief Concept Officer Greg Creed contacted The Lookout with a strongly worded amended corporate response to the lawsuit:
At Taco Bell, we buy our beef from the same trusted brands you find in the supermarket, like Tyson Foods. We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef. Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture. We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website. Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later -- and got their "facts" absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food."
(Photo of sailor eating a taco: AP/Gary C. Knapp. Screengrab of Taco Bell tacos via TacoBell.com)