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Good Question: When Is Beef Not 100 Percent Beef?

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(credit: CBS) Jason DeRusha
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By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For a buck, we don’t expect Kobe beef. However, should Taco Bell be able to call its ground beef tacos “beef” when a group of lawyers say the taco is less than 40 percent beef?

An Alabama law firm is suing Taco Bell, arguing that they should market their tacos as “taco meat filling” rather than “beef.” They claim the taco meat is made up of 36 percent beef. What’s the other 64 percent?

According to the lawsuit, the ingredients include: water, “Isolated Oat Product,” wheat oats, soy lecithin, maltodrextrin, anti-dusting agent, autolyzed yeast extract, modified corn starch and sodium phosphate as well as beef and seasonings.

Meanwhile, there are definitions for these sorts of things. The United States Department of Agriculture defines “beef” as “flesh of cattle.”

“I happen to like the tacos at taco bell,” laughed Ted Labuza, food science professor and food labeling expert at the University of Minnesota. “I hadn’t known there was such a thing as taco meat filling.”

The Department of Agriculture requires food labeled “ground beef” to be 100 percent ground beef, although seasonings are allowed. The maximum amount of fat allowed is 30%.

Taco meat filling needs to have at least 40 percent beef, according to the USDA.

Taco Bell’s internal labeling on the meat product is “taco meat filling,” but Taco Bell isn’t directly selling that “meat filling” to the public.

So, Labuza said this is more of a marketing issue than a legal food labeling one.

“Is the advertising deceptive or not?” he asked. “The Federal Trade Commission has different rules than the USDA.”

The USDA Food Labeling guide for meats is 178 pages long. It rules that “Bacon” can only come from pork belly, cured meat from other parts of the pig must be labeled that way.

Veal patties are allowed to have 20 percent beef or beef fat, according to the guide.

Non-meat products have their own rules, from the Food & Drug Administration. Ever wonder why a lot of frozen pizza doesn’t advertise as “cheese” and sausage? A lot of them don’t use real cheese.

“Each different kind of cheese has standards. Those are FDA standards,” said Labuza, who said that cheese substitute or cheese food is often used in pizza so the cheese melts more evenly.

The term “maple” is regulated by the federal government and by some maple syrup producing states. Unless it’s 100 percent, you can’t call syrup “maple.” Many types of syrup are labeled “pancake syrup” or simply “syrup.”

The state of Vermont is going after McDonald’s new “Fruit & Maple Oatmeal” because regulators claim there’s no real maple in it.

Juice is also heavily regulated. If it isn’t 100 percent juice it has to be called a juice product or juice drink. Also, the percentage of juice has to be clearly marked on the label.

“The reason for the standards is to put everyone on a level playing field,” said Labuza. “This is not about food safety; it’s mainly about regulating commerce.”

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