Jan
28

The Real Beef Behind the Lawsuit: Taco Bell and the Burden of Class Action Lawsuits

By

taco-bell-beefWhen I eat at Taco Bell, I usually get chicken, steak, or even just a filling bean burrito, but I have tried the seasoned beef and can confirm that it is beef. I love to cook and naturally prefer my own cooking (and tend toward vegetarian fare these days), but being familiar with ground beef, I suggest that you can look at it, feel it, and taste it to recognize that it’s mostly ground beef. The popular chain, though, faces an expensive class action lawsuit because one woman (actually a team of lawyers in the name of one woman) claims that Taco Bell’s “seasoned beef” does not meet US legal standards. This story is making international headlines and generating a lot of buzz–see, for example, the story at CNN and the Washington Post. In some of the news stories I see, I wonder if anyone has actually read the legal complaint to see where the beef really is in this complaint, available in PDF form at http://www.beasleyallen.com/webfiles/Taco-Bell-Complaint.pdf.

News stories typically state that the suit is about Taco Bell’s seasoned beef having just 35% beef, less than the 40% standard for beef filling. (Some stories even put the 35% claim in their headline.) If so, Taco Bell will have no problem because anyone familiar with ground beef can recognize that Taco Bell’s beef filling is obviously mostly beef, and Taco Bell claims that it is manufactured with 88% beef. (What’s the other 12%? A little water, some oat products, spices, etc., as you can read in the lawsuit or hear explained by Taco Bell’s CEO on YouTube.) But the complaint as filed is not about 35% vs. 40% for beef filling, but over the alleged misuse of the term “seasoned beef” instead of more proper terms such as “beef filling” or “taco filling.” A beef “filling” has to be at least 40% beef, but to call something “seasoned beef” or “seasoned ground beef,” so argues the plaintiff, one has to meet the USDA standard for “ground beef” which means that it cannot have added water, binders, or extenders. So the basis for the suit is not whether lab tests show 35% or 40% beef (it’s obviously well over 50%, in my opinion, unless some rogue Taco Bell shop is watering everything down), but whether Taco Bell is incorrectly marketing their product as “seasoned beef” when it should be “beef filling,” “taco meat filling,” or some other less beefy term.

Some news stories even talk about lab results showing that the filling is only 35% beef. Perhaps this is an additional line being pursued by the law firm, but it’s not in the original complaint.

“Beef filling” vs. “seasoned beef”: that is the basis for claiming that Taco Bell is “immoral, unethical, oppressive, and unscrupulous” and “injurious to consumers.” Even if Taco Bell needs to tweak their marketing lingo, the allegations in the lawsuit seem a bit much.

A larger issue here is the inequity of class action lawsuits which enable the fiction of allowing a team of lawyers to claim to represent millions of people in suing companies for minute offenses. Yes, companies need to comply with the law, but when every successful company suddenly must face numerous shakedowns, each of which can cost millions to defend, it adds to the unnecessary burdens of being in business and creating jobs and real products. If Taco Bell needs to improve their terminology, call the USDA and let them issue penalties and corrective orders. Problem solved. But this is going to be a shakedown for millions. It’s hard for me to see how this is worth millions of dollars of penalties to see that justice is done–defining justice, of course, as paying large amounts of money to lawyers.

The complaint, by the way, is signed by attorney Timothy G. Blood. Interesting surname for a class action lawyer.

Update, Jan. 29, 2011: CNBC has an article about Taco Bell’s forceful response. Turns out that the USDA regulation cited in the lawsuit doesn’t even apply to restaurants. “The USDA’s rules apply to meat processors — the companies Taco Bell buys its meat from. Tyson Foods Inc., the company’s largest meat supplier, said it mixes and cooks the meat at three USDA-inspected plants and that the meat is tested daily to make sure it meets requirements.” That makes the lawsuit all the more ridicuous–and one more example of the many costly fatigue factors that businesses face these days.

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