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Taco Bell defends itself with new ads

Chain debuts "truth" campaign amid pending consumer lawsuit

Battling a hit to its public image from a lawsuit over its taco meat, Taco Bell is going direct to consumers with full-page advertisements in leading U.S. newspapers offering “the truth” about its seasoned beef.

The campaign comes in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this week in California alleging that Taco Bell falsely advertised as “beef” a taco filling that includes “extenders” and other non-meat substances. Taco Bell has said it is considering legal action against the plaintiff for false statements.

The confusion resulting from media coverage of the lawsuit has damaged Taco Bell’s public image, according to data from customer perception research firm BrandIndex.

Prior to the lawsuit, Taco Bell had been registering BrandIndex scores well above the quick-service segment average of 12.2, from survey respondents who had eaten at a quick-service restaurant during the previous 30 days.

On Jan. 19, the day plaintiff Amanda Obney filed her claim, Taco Bell’s index score reached a peak of 31 among frequent QSR diners, but its scores have fallen sharply since news of the suit came to light. The brand finished Jan. 28 with an index score of negative 2, which was still falling as of press time.

BrandIndex calculates its scores of overall brand perception by surveying 5,000 consumers each weekday; averaging ratings of companies’ reputations and their customers’ satisfaction; and subtracting negative responses from positive ones, yielding an overall index score between negative 100 and positive 100.

In Taco Bell’s newspaper ads Friday as well as those on its website, the chain fought back with full disclosure of its taco meat ingredients. Taco Bell president and chief concept officer Greg Creed described the campaign as giving away its “secret” recipe.

Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell, a system of about 5,600 restaurants, is operated and franchised by Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc.

In the print ads, a letter from Creed says, “Thank you for suing us” in large letters, and goes on to say that the claims made against the quick-service chain’s seasoned beef are “absolutely false.”

Both the ads and a detailed response on the company’s website outline specifically the ingredients used in its taco meat.

Obney’s lawsuit alleges that Taco Bell is misrepresenting “taco meat filling” as beef in its products, referring to a U.S. Department of Agriculture definition.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount in relief and asks that Taco Bell launch a corrective advertising campaign to “educate the public about the true content of its food products.”

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service would regulate any meat-processing facility that might produce such products for restaurants.

The agency defines ground beef as having no more than 30 percent fat, and, not including added water, phosphates, extenders or binders, though seasoning may be an ingredient.

“Taco filling” must contain 40 percent meat and the label used by the processing facility must show the product name as “taco filling with meat,” “beef taco filling” or “taco meat filling.”

In the ads and online, Creed affirms that Taco Bell’s meat does not include “extenders” to add volume, and that the ingredients added to the USDA-inspected ground beef used are typical of any cooking process.

Taco Bell states that its seasoned beef is made up of 88 percent beef.

The other 12 percent includes: water, representing about 3 percent; and spices, representing another 3 percent to 5 percent, including salt, chili pepper, onion powder, tomato powder, sugar, garlic powder, cocoa powder and a proprietary blend of Mexican spices and natural flavors.

Another 3 percent to 5 percent is represented by oats, starch, sugar, yeast, citric acid and other ingredients, which the company said contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency and quality of the product.

“We’re cooking with a proprietary recipe to give our seasoned beef flavor and texture, just like you would with any recipe you cook at home,” the company said on its website. “For example, when you make chili, meatloaf or meatballs, you add your own recipe of seasoning and spices to give the beef flavor and texture, otherwise, it would taste just like unseasoned ground beef. We do the same thing with our recipe for seasoned beef.”

Ted Marzilli, senior vice president for BrandIndex, said Taco Bell’s slip to less favorable perceptions was statistically significant, reminiscent of the hit Domino’s Pizza took to its public image in 2009 when employees posted a YouTube video of themselves contaminating food.

However, Domino’s BrandIndex score dropped 20 points in the first week and took five weeks to recover back then. Taco Bell’s scores have dropped more than 30 points and are still falling, “so there’s potential for this to go longer before recovery,” Marzilli said.

A drawn-out court battle could keep the story fresh in consumers’ minds, he added, necessitating Taco Bell’s need to act decisively soon.

“The scores are still going down, and until we see a bottom, it’s hard to predict the kind of recovery period Taco Bell will need,” Marzilli said. “The bigger question is how do you bring effective communications to consumers that are more than she-said-we-said.”

He suggested hiring an independent company to collect beef samples from several Taco Bells and analyze their contents. That, in addition to the newspaper ads, “could stop this story dead in its tracks,” said Marzilli.

Taco Bell isn’t the first chain to be the target of a lawsuit questioning ingredient claims.

A class action lawsuit filed in 2007 raised questions about Pinkberry’s swirled dessert product, arguing that it didn’t meet California’s specific definitions for what could be called “frozen yogurt” and questioning whether it could be called “all natural.”

In 2005, Rubio’s Restaurants was the target of a lawsuit saying that chain falsely presented as “lobster” what was actually similar-tasting crustacean known as langostino.

Both cases were reportedly settled, with no admission of wrongdoing.

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].
Contact Mark Brandau at [email protected].

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