Taco Bell Beef: Breaking the Law?


NEW YORK (MainStreet) – There’s a brand new class action lawsuit against Taco Bell (Stock Quote: YUM) for a “beef deficiency” in its beef tacos. The suit points to open-ended questions on what exactly restaurants can – and can’t  - get away with when it comes to truth in advertising.

The brouhaha began with a class action lawsuit filed this week on behalf of a California woman, Amanda Obney, that claims that Taco Bell's signature beef taco contains less than 35% meat.

According to the FDA, “'Chopped Beef' or 'Ground Beef' shall consist of chopped fresh and/or frozen beef with or without seasoning and without the addition of beef fat as such, shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.”

The class action suit, filed in the Central District of California by the Montgomery law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, doesn’t ask Taco Bell to stop making beef tacos. Instead, it asks the fast food giant to stop claiming it has the amount of beef in its beef tacos it says it does.

"We are asking that they stop saying that they are selling beef," lead attorney Lee Miles said in a statement. For its part, Taco Bell said it would “vigorously defend the suit”.

But larger questions remain as the combatants get ready to do battle in court. Specifically, does the class-action suit have a shot, and exactly what rules and regulations are food companies and restaurants expected to abide by – and do they?

Experts say the Food and Drug Administration’s food laws aren’t very specific. But that may well be by design. “The USDA and the FDA have to walk a fine line,” says Gene Grabowksi, manager of crisis, litigation, liability, and recall practices at Washington, D.C. based Levick Strategic Communications. “On the one hand, they need to safeguard consumer health and want accurate labeling. On the other hand, they don’t want to inhibit food companies and restaurants from marketing their products and services –within reason.”

Where does Taco Bell stand in such a vague regulatory landscape? “We see these lawsuits all the time,” Grabowski adds. “Taco Bell certainly has a right to market their product. As long as they are within the rules, and Taco Bell says that’s the case, they should be all right.”

The worst damage may come from the public relations fallout. “Situations like this one lend themselves to late night comics and that could be the worst damage,” he says. “But past that, I don’t see a serious violation of the law here.”

One step Grabowski advises that Taco Bell take is to get ahead of the public relations curve and reach out to its mostly young audience via social networking sites to make its case. “Go where there customer base resides – and that’s on Facebook and Twitter,” Grabowski says. “Don’t rely on traditional media – you’re better off tweeting.”

Whether it wins its day in court – or the court of public opinion – depends on a whole host of factors, but the accusation has opened up a serious challenge to one of America’s biggest brands.

To paraphrase the old saying, “It ain’t the meat – it’s the motions”. They’ll both be coming soon to a California courtroom  - north of the border.

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