Thinking outside the Cow: Taco Bell and Absent Beef

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 01.02.2011

The fast food revolution was very much a revolution of appearance. In the mass production stakes, the natural product disappeared, becoming some vague resemblance of what it was meant to be. Beef? What beef? Substitutes and culinary shortcuts prevailed. By the stage an animal was duly made ready for the citizens of the easy eat, it had lost all connection with its origins. This was cheap mass produced fare for the fast food nation. It could well have been an image in a surrealist painting. 'Is this, in truth, a cow?'

Taco Bell is fighting a battle in this world of images. Its food is neither Mexican (it is 'inspired' by America's southern neighbor), driven by beef or particularly accurate to the image it wishes to promote for its consumers. None of these things matters in a market place that thrives on constructed mendacity. Both consumer and producer live the collective lie - neither will admit that what is being eaten or produced is what it claims to be.

This complicity is being challenged in a lawsuit launched by an Alabama law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles. The firm seeks class action status against the Yum! Brands subsidiary. The suit makes the claim that the taco meat present in Taco Bell is a meager 36 percent of beef, less than the US Department of Agriculture minimum of 40 percent. The binders and extenders used in making the product supposedly fall short of making the grade of 'seasoned ground beef.' The suggested remedies are for the giant to rename their products or readjust the quantity of beef present in their products.

The response by Taco Bell has been belligerent and unconvincing. For one thing, they have mounted a publicity campaign of thanks - for those suing them. There is nothing worse than a company that resorts to irony to save their bank balance. In the words of their spokesman Rob Poetsch, 'Taco Bell prides itself on serving high quality Mexican inspired food with great value. We're happy that the millions of customers we serve every week agree.' The rationale adopted by Poetsch here is that the customers are the ultimate standard, however deceived. Give them suitably gilded muck, and if they like it, the product is vindicated. Even if the company were selling some variant of space food, it would not matter.

Greg Creed, President and Chief Concept Officer of Taco Bell Corp. preferred to be more thorough in sprucing up his food concepts for the public. His statement insisted that beef did exist at every stage of the creation process with the company's products, from initial purchase to the addition of seasoning and spices. For one thing, the percentage of beef used, claims Creed, lies more in the order of 88 percent. The rest was made up of seasoning, spices and other water products. That the company had initially claimed that 100 percent of beef existed in its product is evidence of a certain theory of relativity at play.

In reading Creed's response, one might imagine the home kitchen, fragrant, deliciously innovative, taken over by the chef geniuses of a corporate giant. 'We're cooking with a proprietary recipe to give our seasoned beef flavor and texture, just as you would any recipe you cook at home.' The link to home is vital, suggesting that a giant like Taco Bell has understood what home cooking is all about. Nothing, in that sense, could be further from the truth.

Having then thought outside the cow, the officials at the company are seeking to put the cow back where it supposedly belongs. They will either up the beef or simply up the charm. They hope that the counter-suit will do the trick, accomplishing what their cooks could not. For now, the lawyers have the ascendancy. If the consumers have any sense of mind about this, they will vote with their stomachs and boycott the company.


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