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by Paul Kiser
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Paul Kiser

Article first published as
PR Epic Fail: Taco Bell meat only 36% beef?
on Technorati

(NOTE:  This article was submitted to the Technorati.com editors on Tuesday evening (January 25) and published Wednesday evening. On Wednesday, Taco Bell Corp. gave a definitive statement of the quality of its meat and claims that its taco meat is 88% beef.  To read this statement and a follow-up article, click on this link: Greg Creed’s statement on Taco Bell’s taco meat.)

It’s not too early in the year for the first entry in the “Worst PR of 2011” contest and that dishonor may go to Taco Bell. The fast food chain is facing a controversy that has all the makings of a classic Public Relations Epic Fail award.

Cat treats or Taco Bell taco meat? Which has more protein?

News media (See USAToday article) and online blogs have buzzing about a lawsuit that is seeking class action status against the Yum! Brands subsidiary stating that the taco meat at Taco Bell is only 36% beef, which is less than the USDA minimum of 40%. The suit seeks to have Taco Bell either rename their products or add more beef.

This controversy would be bad enough with just the lawsuit, but the company counter attack will undoubtedly generate more public focus on the issue. Taco Bell’s strategy raises the stakes in a Public Relations battle that now has to be 100% successful or else the company will lose all credibility for the foreseeable future. The response so far seems to indicate that Taco Bell is walking a fine line in denying the accusations about their product.

According to Associated Press reporter, Bob Johnson, the first company response was from Taco Bell spokesperson, Rob Poetsch:

“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,” Poetsch said. He said the company would “vigorously defend the suit.”

Poetsch’s response carefully avoids denying the accusations, but is worded to imply that since the customers buy the product, it must be okay.

Later the Greg Creed, President and Chief Concept Officer of Taco Bell Corp. put out a stronger, but still carefully worded statement that again walked a fine line in denying the accusations. His statement said that: 1) Taco Bell buys beef, 2) the beef is 100% USDA inspected, 3) the process begins with simmering beef, 4) seasonings and spices are added, and 5) the ‘signature Taco Bell’ taste and texture results from the process. He then added that the ‘lawyers….got their “facts” absolutely wrong’ and that Taco Bell plans to take legal action for false statements made about their food.

While this sounds like a denial, Creed avoids saying anything about the use of fillers and extenders in their taco meat by referring to all added ingredients as “seasoning and spices.” According to the Taco Bell website the ingredients for the ground taco meat include the following (ranking added):

#3 – Isolated Oat Product, #8 – Oats (Wheat), #9 – Soy Lecithin, #12 – Maltodextrin, #13 – Soybean Oil (Anti-dusting Agent), #15 – Autolyzed Yeast Extract, #17 – Caramel Color, #18 – Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), #19 – Silicon Dioxide, #21 – Yeast, #22 – Modified Corn Starch, #25 – Sodium Phosphates

Both the website and Creed refer to these ingredients as “seasoning”, implying they add taste to the product and are not fillers or extenders. However, if the lawsuit is accurate, Taco Bell may have a hard time convincing its customers that ground taco meat requires 64% ‘”seasoning” and only 36% beef.

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