Saturday, April 20, 2013

Taco Bell: Where's the beef? (2011)

By Scott Nette (2013)


            Taco Bell is a chain fast food restaurant that started up in 1962 and is based in Irvine, California. The company was founded by Glen Bell who started out owning hot dog stands in 1946. Later in his career, he owned a few restaurants, not yet under the name of Taco Bell. It was only later in his life when he sold his restaurants to his business partner that Bell built the first Taco Bell. Taco Bell proved to be so successful that in 1978, PepsiCo bought Taco Bell. In 1997, Yum! Brands (previously known as Tricon Global Restaurants) broke off from PepsiCo along with several other companies. Currently, Taco Bell is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, Inc, which also operates and licenses other chains such as: KFC, Pizza Hut and WingStreet. There are almost 5,600 Taco Bell restaurants in the US and it has grown to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Taco Bell serves Mexican style food cheaply which makes them popular; they serve about 36.8 million consumers a week. They are a fast food restaurant that is recognized globally as well; they are located in more than 20 countries around the world.

           In January 2011, a lawsuit was filed against Taco Bell about what exactly is in their “taco meat filling” that they used in some of their products. A test was conducted before the lawsuit and the results stated that only 35% beef was being used, which was what initially sparked the lawsuit.  The lawsuit seeks no momentary damages but it does want Taco Bell to be honest in their advertising. Taco Bell stated back saying that the beef recipe they use is 88% beef and 12% seasonings, which contain spices, water, and other ingredients.  Taco Bell advertises their products as “seasoned ground beef” when the lawsuit says they should label it as “taco meat filling.”  The USDA has regulations stating how manufacturers must label their raw meat. For example, “taco meat filling” must contain at least 40% fresh meat and have the word “filling” in the product name.  But there is no regulation as to how restaurants can describe to their customers what their meat is.

The test on Taco Bell's meat mix was tested and it was found that about 15% of it was protein. That might not sound like a lot, but for ground beef, it’s right around normal. That is because ground beef is mainly composed of water and fat so that percentage of protein is normal. However, that’s not all that was tested. There were some ingredients that were found in the meat that you would not find in your supermarket meat. One such ingredient is soy lecithin. That is a binding agent so without it, the meat mix would separate similar to how oil separates from water. Another ingredient is autolyzed yeast extract, whose main purpose is to enhance the flavor of the meat to give it a full, savory taste. Other ingredients are also added that help give the beef flavor and add color.

        Taco Bell's response was, “The only reason we add anything to our beef is to give the meat flavor and quality. Otherwise we'd end up with nothing more than the bland flavor of ground beef, and that doesn't make for great-tasting tacos." From the tests given on the beef, it was reported that there is nothing unusual in the beef that you wouldn't expect from a fast food place, nothing dangerous or harmful. To help give the impression that quality is important to Taco Bell, they will say that their beef is 100% USDA inspected. However, all meat processed in the US is inspected by the USDA and it is pay for by tax money. So it doesn't say much at all about what happens to the meat after that stage or anything about the quality of the meat.

         Milton Friedman’s economic theory states that a company should do whatever it can to try to maximize profits, but they must obey the law and fall within constraints of human rights. The goal of the vast majority of businesses is to make money and Taco Bell is no different. In order for Taco Bell to make a large profit, they need to sell a lot of product and they can do that by gaining customer loyalty. But at the same time, they can't afford to make top quality products, otherwise there is little to no profit to be made. Based on the controversy discussed above, it would be cheaper for Taco Bell to include fillers in their beef and other flavoring ingredients.  That way customers can get they taste they are looking for and Taco Bell can save money by using less beef.
Taco Bell Beefy Crunch Burrito 
       Taco Bell was calling the beef they were selling “seasoned ground beef” to make it more marketable towards consumers. As a consumer, that sounds much better than “taco meat filling.” But there is no law stating what restaurants must call their meat that they are selling, it is only required that the percentage of ground beef be higher than 35%. Taco Bell was within the law when stating their meat was “seasoned ground beef.” They are also not putting any ingredients in their product that could potentially be harm to humans.  The company is following the ethical theory of individualism and is not breaking it. They are following the law and trying to make the most amount of profit as possible.

        The ethical theory of utilitarianism is about overall happiness and maximizing happiness for everyone. Based on the fact that there was a lawsuit against Taco Bell, I would say that not everyone is completely happy with Taco Bell. Taco Bell would not reveal what was in the 12% of the ingredients that was not beef, as claimed by Taco Bell themselves. Also, Taco Bell never officially proved that their beef contained 88% ground beef. That led to questioning by many people. Some people are curious and want to know what they are eating, or were eating.

        As far as overal happiness, I think Taco Bell also meets this goal. In order for the company to continue to grow and make a profit, they need consumers to trust their products. Taco Bell is satisfied with the products they are putting out and believe their quality is high enough were consumers will have no problem consuming their products and by happy with it. It is impossible to satisfy everyone, so I would say that the overall happiness is as high as it could get. For maximum happiness to occur, Taco Bell would need to be more detailed about what exactly is in their beef recipe and how much percentage of ground beef is in it.  In the lawsuit, Taco Bell was vague on the subject and would not reveal too much detail on this matter.  The information should be available to those individuals who are interested to know about it and it should not be hidden from anyone. There is some limit as to what Taco Bell should and could reveal. Revealing this recipe could lead to imitators who plan on coping Taco Bell.As a conclusion for Utilitarianism, Taco Bell would not pass this theory because happiness is not maximized. Some people must not be happy with the company or agree with their standings for them to file a lawsuit and run tests on the food that they are serving.
The main idea behind Kantianism is to do what is right because it is the right thing to do, not because you will get more money, fame or anything out of it.  The Kantian theory also had another part that plays into effect in this controversy, and that is the formula of humanity.  The formula of humanity basically says that you should treat everyone with respect and not just as some random person that you can use and then dispose of.  It is important to understand a company’s intentions and motives to fully understand if they are following this theory.  From these basic definitions, one can see that it directly applies to the food industry. 

        Understanding if the controversy passes or fails this theory depends on which side you stand on the topic.  Taco Bell was advertising their meat as "seasoned ground beef" and since there is no regulation as to what is needed to be seasoned ground beef, this label applies to Taco Bell’s intentions.  As Taco Bell is a food restaurant, and being as large as it is, it is important for a company like that to build up a reputation.  One would imagine that quality and honesty is critical when growing a business and trust needs to be made between the business and the customer.  Taco Bell could be stretching the truth about having 88% ground beef in their recipe and use it in advertising to help them gain popularity, but that would be their intention to purposely deceive people so they could gain more business.  I don't think that anyone would notice if the beef had 70% beef in it or 85% beef in it.  With the added flavors and ingredients, it would probably taste the same if not very similar. 

From the Kantian Business Ethics article, “The Kantian principles will allow you to sell ineffective and harmful supplements if you are not deceiving or harming people, or otherwise using them for your own personal gain.”  Similar to that article, as long as Taco Bell is not deceiving or harming people, they should be allowed to continue to use "seasoned ground beef" on their advertisements. It may not be the highest quality meat or products, but people who purchase products from the restaurant generally know what type of food to expect. The fact that they are a fast food restaurant and that their products are sold at cheap prices should indicate you get what you are paying for. Just as long as Taco Bell's claim of 88% beef in their recipe is correct, then this passes the Kantianism theory.

       The virtue theory deals with creating a good image and positive characteristics for a company.  In the virtue theory, there are four virtues which a business should have: courage, honesty, temperance, and justice (Salazar).  At first glance, it might seem unusual for a business to be said to have those four traits, so some more definition needs to be put behind them.  Courage is about risk-taking and willingness to take a stand for what is right, honesty for hiring and treatment of employees and customers, temperance for reasonable expectations, and justice for hard work, quality products, good ideas and fair practices (Salazar). being sued, it was important for Taco Bell to have courage to stand up behind their product.  They knew what they were selling is exactly what they stated it was so they gave everyone a chance to try it for free by giving away free tacos.  They were honest with the consumers about what was in their beef recipe and provided a list of some ingredients to go with it as well.  They were not trying to deceive anyone and were just trying to prove the claim against them was wrong and inaccurate. Taco Bell is a business that took hard work to build up to where it is today.  They believe that the food they serve is of proper quality and fair to their consumers.  Based on the facts given on the controversy, it passes this theory as well.
        According to the ethic theories described above, assuming that majority rules, then Taco Bell acted ethically in the case. It never seemed like they were trying to mislead their customers by advertising that some of their products contained “seasoned ground beef.” From what Taco Bell provided in the case, it seemed pretty accurate to describe their beef as that. That is not saying that the Taco Bells reports are completely accurate because there might be a valid reason why the lawsuit was issued in the first place. It is possible that Taco Bell did not want to get a bad public opinion so a settlement occurred behind closed doors. It is important to understand from this case that especially in the food industry, it is important to be fair and honest with your customers since they will be the ones who support the business.

- Sterling, Colin. "Taco Bell Meat: Chain Sued Over 35% Beef Content In 'Taco Meat Filling' [Updated]." The Huffington Post. 25 Jan. 2011. 2 Apr. 2013 <>
- Horovitz, Bruce. "USA TODAY." USATODAY.COM. USA Today. 2 Apr. 2013 <>.
- Maze, Jonathan. "Taco Bell Meat Lawsuit Goes Away, Controversy Doesn't." Taco Bell Meat Lawsuit Goes Away, Controversy Doesn't. 19 Apr. 2011. Restaurant Finance Monitor. 2 Apr. 2013 <>.
- Stewart, Robert. "LSU professor sheds light on Taco Bell meat controversy." 11 Feb. 2011. Daily Reveille. 3 Apr. 2013 <>.

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