Where's The Beef?

A lawsuit raises the question of how much beef it takes to sell a "seasoned beef" taco. The answer: not as much as you think

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Amanda Obney just wanted to purchase a beef-filled food item, and Taco Bell must have seemed like a perfectly reasonable place to find one. After all, the fast-food chain advertises tacos and burritos filled with "seasoned ground beef." But Obney, apparently disappointed, did what any determined Americans would do if their craving for meat had been frustrated by a giant corporation: she lawyered up. On Jan. 19 the Alabama law firm Beasley Allen, together with the California firm Blood, Hurst & O'Reardon, filed a lawsuit against Taco Bell that essentially asks, in legalese, Where's the beef?

Not in your taco, they allege. Attorney Daniel Miles III of Beasley Allen says his firm has tested Taco Bell items and found that only 35% of what the fast-food chain calls "seasoned beef" actually seems to be beef. By Miles' calculation, that's just half the percentage the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires for products labeled as ground beef: at least 70% beef, no more than 30% fat. Miles says a former Taco Bell manager in Georgia claims to have witnessed boxes arriving at restaurants labeled "taco meat filling" — which the USDA has said only needs to contain 40% fresh meat.

Not true, says Taco Bell president Greg Creed, who has threatened legal retribution. He says the company's seasoned beef is 88.28% USDA-inspected beef, along with water, spices and a few additives that keep the ingredients from caking. "There is no basis in fact or reality for this suit," Creed told TIME in an e-mail. "We will vigorously defend the quality of our products from frivolous and misleading claims such as this." Taco Bell also says that though its suppliers have labeled its beef packaging as "taco meat filling," the USDA has approved the term "seasoned beef" for the packaging and that a change is in the works.

Obney and her attorneys aren't looking to win money from Taco Bell, aside from expenses. They want the fast-food company to change its advertising. But there's a more pressing question the suit doesn't address: What's in our fast food? Much more than you might want to think about. The seasoning in what Taco Bell calls "seasoned ground beef" isn't there just to enhance the flavor; it is the flavor. The ground beef used by many fast-food joints is made up of the leftover trimmings from the cow — which is still meat, just the lowest grade — and without the additives, it wouldn't have much taste at all beyond leathery. The seasonings aren't the sort you'd find in your kitchen either, unless you happen to have autolyzed yeast extract, soy lecithin or maltodextrin handy.

Nor is Taco Bell by any means the only chain that serves up fast food with chemical additives and preservatives. A McDonald's Chicken McNugget — which a federal judge once termed a "McFrankenstein creation" — has an ingredient list that looks like a page from a chemistry textbook, including a tiny amount of tertiary butylhydroquinone, a preservative for vegetable oils and animal fats that in larger doses may cause nausea and vomiting. Want French fries at Burger King? In addition to potatoes, you'll get xanthan gum and sodium acid pyrophosphate.

It's important to note there's no evidence that these chemical additives are dangerous — unless you sprain your tongue trying to pronounce them. "It may not be healthy, but it's probably pathogen-free," says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Even the Taco Bell lawsuit focuses on branding, not quality — and it's government regulators, after all, who determine what "taco filling" must be. But a quick survey of the ingredients of most processed food, fast or otherwise, demonstrates that the gap between what the TV ads lead us to believe we're buying and what we're actually putting in our mouth is large indeed.

The real danger in fast food doesn't come from the additives or the possibility that your beef-filled food item isn't beef-filled enough. It's the food itself, the cheap calories, fat and sodium that contribute to America's crippling obesity problem. A Beefy Five-Layer Burrito from Taco Bell has 560 calories and 22 g of fat, for just 99¢. The scandal in fast food isn't what's missing; it's what's there.