Good Question: When Is Beef Not 100 Percent Beef?

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.”

More from Jason DeRusha
  • Francis J. Ferrell

    When is beef not beef? When you had all the cheap fillers to it! Too bad the USDA & FDA can’t be consistent with this definition!

  • Victim Du Jour

    People go to Taco Bell for real food? Open up the soft-shell and it looks like a dirty diaper.

    Jason Should do a story about why too many White Castles cause explosive diahrea.

    • Monica

      Oddly, I have never had any stomach problems with White Castles.. Its strange because I always hear of everyone else having them, for as long as i can remember.

      I wonder why they dont mess with my stomach?

      • Ms. Joy

        We must have stomachs of steel or something, because white castles don’t have that affect on me, either!!!!

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  • secretsquirrel

    Most people don’t WANT to know what they are eating. Not unlike bars, many people go there so they can get smashed and not know who they are sleeping with. Fast food is for fun, not nutrition.

  • Emily

    It’s better to learn how to cook. Then you know what you are eating.

    • brooke


  • Jack

    I would be most happy if the USDA & FDA not only provided better standards on how much beef should be in something but to do something about those dang hormones and antibiotics in the beef, eggs and chicken for God’s sake no I take that back for our sake.

  • Mandy

    Or eat at Chik-fil-a. No secrets there. I wish we had some in Minnesota.

  • Greg Laden

    The taco is not supposed to contain pure beef in that beef filling. It would not be a taco. If you make tacos at home, one pound of meet is mixed with one cup of water and a package of “taco mix.” The result is less than 100% beef. Otherwise it would not taste like a taco.

    On the other hand, the taco at home is probbably 60 or 70 percent beef.. Perhaps Taco Bell is going a little light on the beef.

    On the third hand, we are supposed to eat less beef. So this is a good thing.

  • BP

    Less beef means less CO2, Taco Bell just went green is all.

  • Kelly

    I find this silly. Was I supposed to believe that fast food restuarants (any of them) served 100% beef??? This just seems like one of those dumb lawsuits.

  • Emlee

    And this IS about food safety, for people with allergies.

  • Jeremy

    Really, food safety, for people with allergies? Ummm….yeah, I don’t believe Taco Bell EVER hid the ingredients of their seasoned beef. I’m sorry, if you have a food allergy, then YOU must take PERSONAL responsibility for what goes in YOUR body, not punish everyone else. If you have a severe allergy then YOU must carry an epi pen and avoid the product, not expect me not to eat peanuts, oats, Red Lake #5, wheat, eggs, etc….

    Here is your argument in my situation, “I’m allergic to pollen, maybe we should defoliate the world, because I have the RIGHT to breathe freely without taking any medicine.”

    Gonna happen, NOPE!!!

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