But the fast food giant is fighting back. "The lawsuit is bogus and filled with completely inaccurate facts," says a recent Taco Bell statement. "Our seasoned beef recipe contains 88% quality USDA-inspected beef and 12% seasonings, spices, water and other ingredients that provide taste, texture and moisture. The lawyers got their facts wrong. We take this attack on our quality very seriously and plan to take legal action against them for making false statements about our products."
What's in Processed Meats?
The media is mostly portraying this as a dispute over possible false advertising -- but the Taco Bell story also adds fuel to ongoing arguments over processed meat in general. McDonald's (MCD), for example, added healthier items to its menu after getting unwanted attention about some of its ingredients following the 2004 movie documentary Super-Size Me.
Controversies over processed meats have been in the news for years now -- over issues like the growing use of corn in U.S. food products and the dangers of too much salt, fat and preservatives. But some observers believe it's not necessarily fair to single out Taco Bell over its ingredients.
And while those non-meat proteins are less expensive and certainly can help a company's bottom line, Woerner says most of those added ingredients have a purpose and not just as filler. "I'm talking about the tenderness or consistency of that product," he notes, "the moisture that that product maintains to give a pleasant eating experience, and also the flavor."
Expecting the Same Burger, Coast-to-Coast
Part of the problem may be that Americans have become accustomed to uniformity in their meals. Most folks expect a burger purchased from a major fast-food chain to taste the same, coast-to-coast, no matter where in the country (or in the world, for that matter) you buy it.
That uniformity, says Woerner, prompts processed-meat producers to work hard at keeping customers happy. "All of these things are factored into a least-cost formulation," he says, "but they're also driven toward a specification for quality. I'm certain, for example, that Taco Bell has done millions of dollars of research on ingredients, and ultimately they are producing a product that's demanded by their customers; in the way of flavor, functionality, mouth-feel, etc."
Consumers, however, are rapidly changing and becoming more health-conscious. As a result, chances are good that even if your guilty pleasure is a quick burger at a fast-food chain, you're going to be getting some nontraditional, low-fat ingredients mixed in with your beef. And for the record, Woerner believes Taco Bell's side of the story.