ground beef - taco bellThe Taco Bell controversy over whether its meat really is "ground beef," as the company claims, or some mysterious concoction of fillers and additives has dominated consumer news since word got out that the Mexican-style food franchise was slapped with a class action lawsuit last week. In a new advertising campaign run in major daily newspapers, the Yum! Brands chain defends the quality of its beef in an effort to counter negative perceptions.

"Thank you for suing us. Here's the truth about our seasoned beef," the ad copy reads, before launching into a detailed description of the percentages of beef and Secret Recipe seasonings the company uses. Those include salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, garlic powder, cocoa powder, oats, caramelized sugar, yeast, citric acid, and "other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency, and quality of our seasoned beef," the ad says."Plain beef tastes boring," the ad also says, explaining that the only reason Taco Bell adds anything to its beef is to enhance its flavor. "Otherwise we'd end up with nothing more than the bland flavor of ground beef, and that doesn't make for great-tasting tacos."

While the ads are explanatory in nature and clearly aimed at re-educating consumers, Taco Bell has also threatened to countersue the Alabama law firm that filed the suit against it. In an earlier statement, Taco Bell President Greg Creed said the lawyers had gotten their facts "absolutely wrong."

Bill Marler, a foodborne illness and product liability attorney who has represented clients in at least three previous food-related lawsuits against Taco Bell, said the company has made a clever move by counterattacking its accusers.

"Taco Bell has done an effective job of taking on the lawyers, [regardless] of whether or not they were selling the definition of the meat," Marler told Consumer Ally. "Lawyers are such an easy target to take on."

However, Marler noted, the legal roots of the controversy lie just as much with Taco Bell. "It's inconceivable to me that a company as sophisticated as Yum! Brands didn't vet with their lawyers the words that they use to advertise their food," he said of the claims that landed the company in trouble, namely that it uses "ground beef" or "seasoned ground beef" in its products.

The class action suit alleges the company only uses about 35% real beef, with the remaining 65% made up of various fillers, binders, and extenders. Such percentages do not meet USDA's minimum requirements for the food mixture to be labeled and advertised as "beef," according to the suit.

"Just because the food is cheap doesn't mean they should be able to tell you that it's something it is not," Marler said. "But my strong suspicion is that their aggressive behavior in the ads is likely justified."

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