Taco Bell Faces Lawsuit Over 'Seasoned Beef'

Fast-food chain Taco Bell is facing a lawsuit over whether the "seasoned beef" in its food is, in fact, beef. The suit from Alabama law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis and Miles claims Taco Bell is engaging in false advertising because their beef contains only about 35 percent beef. For more on the case, host Michele Norris talks to Dee Miles, one of the lead attorneys in the lawsuit.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The fast-food chain Taco Bell is adding to its menu of tacos, gorditas and chulapas.

(Soundbite of Taco Bell ad)

Unidentified Man: The new 99-cent beefy crunch burrito, the crunch of flaming hot Fritos chips, seasoned beef and nacho cheese sauce.

NORRIS: But a new class action lawsuit says that the seasoned beef Taco Bell uses in many of its menu items doesn't contain enough meat, just under 35 percent, to legally call it ground beef.

I'm joined now by one of the attorneys behind the suit: Dee Miles of the firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles. And Mr. Miles, thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. DEE MILES (Attorney, Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis and Miles): Thank you for having me.

NORRIS: And if you're right and there is only 35 percent actual beef in Taco Bell's seasoned beef, what makes up the other 65 percent?

Mr. MILES: Well, those are the items that are listed in the lawsuit. It's things like soybeans and wheat and oats, non-meat products. There are things I can't even pronounce and don't know what they are, but they are non-beef products or non-meat products, and so you have basically almost 65 percent of this beef product being something other than beef.

NORRIS: How did this case come to you?

Mr. MILES: It's an interesting story, actually. A former Taco Bell manager, who worked at Taco Bell and saw that the internal reference to the meat that went into the tacos was referred to as taco meat filling. However, on the menu and on the advertising, Taco Bell refers to it as a beef product.

Well, the United States government refers to beef as being 70 percent beef and 30 percent fat, that's the minimum requirement for beef. And it's clear that Taco Bell's product is not that. So to call it beef is a misrepresentation.

NORRIS: Now, isn't there some leeway if they actually call it taco filling or something like that under those USDA requirements?

Mr. MILES: That's correct, but they don't call it that. They call it that internally. You're exactly correct. There is a 40 percent requirement that the product be beef or flesh from the cow in order for it to be called taco meat filling. However, under our analysis of the product, the Taco Bell product, at least the beef products, we're not even reaching the 40 percent. It's about 35 percent.

NORRIS: Now, we have a statement from Taco Bell, and I want to take just a minute to read that if I can. Taco Bell says: 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.

To that you say what?

Mr. MILES: I say that I have the facts. We actually tested the beef before we filed a lawsuit. This wasn't filed on an allegation. And their statement does not address the issue. If it is not beef product, and if it not 70 percent beef and 30 percent fat, you cannot call it beef. And if you do, you're in violation of the federal government rules and standards.

NORRIS: So is this a - are you taking issue with the way that they are labeling the product, or ultimately, do you want them to change what they serve in their restaurants?

Mr. MILES: What the lawsuit seeks to do is two things: One, label your product correctly. If it's taco meat filling, then call it that. And secondly, the way you advertise your product, if you can't call it beef if it doesn't meet that definition, and if you're not going to do those things on your own, that's what the lawsuit does, it requests injunctive relief, which basically means Taco Bell, if you're not going to make these changes, we're going to ask a court to impose these changes on your practices.

NORRIS: Mr. Miles, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Mr. MILES: Thank you.

NORRIS: And that was Dee Miles. He's one of the attorneys pursuing a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell. At issue is whether or not the fast food chain's seasoned beef can legally be called beef.

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