Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Just How Much Beef is in Fast-Food Meat?

That question emerged after a recent lawsuit alleged that Taco Bell was passing off mostly meat substitute as real beef in its tacos. The  Yum! Brands Inc. chain swiftly countered the accusations, taking out prominent newspaper ads stating that its seasoned beef was the genuine article, containing 88% beef, 3% added water, 4% seasoning and 5% other ingredients, such as oats and sugar.

The controversy exposed a conundrum for consumers. Despite extensive regulations governing certain areas of food processing, there are scant data available to the public about what really goes into some of their favorite restaurant meals. And what information is available—often on fast-food chains' websites—often omits crucial details.

Restaurants' food-content claims can be difficult to verify. When asked for the composition of several of their own dishes, most of the nearly 20 chains contacted by The Wall Street Journal declined to share numbers, citing the proprietary nature of their formulas. Federal regulations don't require restaurants to disclose such information, and there are no rules stipulating minimum meat content in menu items. While determining nutrient information, such as calories and protein, is relatively straightforward, food-testing laboratories say they can't definitively identify the composition of prepared food because the cooking process blends ingredients in a way that is tough to undo.

Unless a food lab knew for sure which ingredients were present, "there is serious potential to be seriously flawed" in estimating just how much of those ingredients are being used, says Kantha Shelke, an independent food technologist in Chicago. "It's a guesstimate at best."

The Taco Bell flap began with a lawsuit filed by a Montgomery, Ala., law firm on behalf of a California woman who claims that "a substantial majority" of the company's beef filling isn't beef. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, didn't provide supplementary evidence. One of the firm's lawyers, Dee Miles, told National Public Radio and other news organizations that tests found that about 35% of the filling was beef. Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Miles now declines to comment, and his firm hasn't disclosed where or how tests were conducted or provided detailed results.

"The claims made against Taco Bell and our seasoned beef are absolutely false," Taco Bell said in the newspaper ads. The company didn't respond to requests for additional comment.

Read the complete story here.

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