Robert Stewart / Daily Reveille
The mystery meat in Taco Bell’s “seasoned ground beef” may not be so mysterious after all, according to an LSU AgCenter animal science professor.
The Mexican-style fast food chain has come under fire recently for its “seasoned ground beef,” which a lawsuit filed by a Montgomery, Ala., law firm claims is only 35 percent beef. Taco Bell quickly rebutted the claim in national ads, saying its product is 88 percent beef.
But Kenneth McMillin, a meat science professor at LSU, says the ingredients may not be so bad and that the fast food giant likely isn’t lying about its product, for liability reasons.
There’s about “40 pages of ingredients” that could be added to meat and poultry products, McMillin says. They include isolated soy product and lecithin; autolyzed yeast extract; soy protein or soy isolate; food grade starches and modified starches.
Those ingredients are used to give lean meat the texture and flavor humans desire while keeping the product low in fat. “Anybody who has made a patty out of ground round or ground sirloin versus ground chuck or regular ground beef knows that those very lean patties tend to be mealy, they tend to fall apart, they just tend to not stimulate the salivary glands like a nice, juicy burger is intended,” McMillin said.
“We’re trying to mimic the effects of fat without having the caloric intake and the saturated, fatty, unsaturated acid implications of fat.”
USDA-approved meat or poultry products can’t contain more than 30 percent fat, while any beef product identified as “taco meat filling” must have 40 percent meat, McMillin said.
Adding ingredients to fast food varies product-by-product and restaurant-by-restaurant, McMillin said.
“Most of the fast food chains that I’m aware of, the quick-serve restaurants, don’t add any of those additional ingredients because they have established their reputation and customer base on what we call normal ground beef.”
McMillin emphasized that the extra ingredients in the tacos aren’t necessarily unhealthy additives.
“There would be lots of nutritionists who would argue that those extended products are indeed more nutritionally beneficial than our increased calorie or the increased fat implications consuming a ground beef product,” McMillin said.
All of this depends, however, on what the ingredients actually are. That will be determined if the records from the processing plant where the meat comes from — which McMillin notes are “extremely detailed” — get admitted into court evidence.
The Alabama firm’s lawsuit says the Taco Bell beef is not really beef but instead “taco meat filling,” according to a news release on the law firm’s website. The suit aims to “halt the dissemination of Taco Bell’s false and misleading advertising message.”
"This product does not qualify to be considered 'ground beef' and many of the 'seasoning' ingredients are in fact binders, fillers and coloring,” plaintiff’s attorney Dee Miles said in the release. “These ingredients increase the overall volume of this product, reducing the actual 'beef' content per serving.” Taco Bell claims on its website that he “seasoned ground beef” includes 88 percent USDA-inspected beef; 3 to 5 percent water for moisture; 3 to 5 percent spices such as salt, chili pepper and onion powder; and 3 to 5 percent oats, starch, sugar, yeast, citric acid, and “other ingredients that contribute to the quality of our product.”
Taco Bell has littered its restaurants with signs that say, “Thank you for suing us” and features the list of the beef’s ingredients. It is also offering millions of free tacos to people who like Taco Bell’s Facebook page.
While the most-hyped part of the controversy focuses on whether the beef Taco Bell uses is “seasoned ground beef” or “taco meat filling,” it’s only the surface skirmish, McMillin said.
“The question is how do you measure meat and how do you actually define whether that meat is lean, or lean and fat, or primarily fat? So the lawsuit on the surface appears to be is the company trying to deceive the consumer? When, in actuality, it’s going to be quite complicated because of the test procedures that are used or not used to determine that.”
Those in doubt about Taco Bell’s tacos should “do their homework” in terms of researching what’s in the products, which McMillin says is not difficult.
“Information is way too easy to obtain on the Internet, on our phones and everything else. We need to be educated at a basic level on how to make those choices and what are the facts versus what are the myths.”