Taco Bell Provides “Beefy” Crisis Response

Back in the 1980’s the hamburger chain Wendy’s took on competitors through a series of ads with  actress Clara Peller who  became famous for saying, “Where’s the Beef?”  Last week a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court in California charging that the taco filling that Taco Bell uses is not all beef led to a major response from Taco Bell. It was a response that met a potential crisis situation head-on and may ultimately avoid any erosion in Taco Bell’s market share in the fast-food industry.

What Taco Bell did right away was launch a national advertising campaign, taking full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times and other papers and online outlets to set the record straight.  The print ads went as far as saying in large block letters, “Thank you for suing us. Here’s the truth about our seasoned beef.”

Taco Bell responded rapidly to a major attack on their brand, something companies of all sizes need to do in a crisis situation.  Whether it will defray any negative reaction by consumers that may be result from the publicity surrounding the filing of the lawsuit remains to be seen. However, the quick public response made in a confident and open manner by Taco Bell management certainly showcased a company not hiding or running from an attack but one that was more than willing to reveal to the public, the true makeup of the ingredients in its seasoned beef.

The suit alleges that the fast-food chain actually uses a meat mixture in its burritos and tacos that contains binders and extenders and does not meet requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be labeled “beef.”

The following is taken from an Associated Press Story on the case:

 The lawsuit, filed by the Alabama law firm Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, doesn’t specify what percentage of the mixture is meat. But the firm’s attorney Dee Miles said the firm had the product tested and found it contained less than 35 percent beef. The firm would not say who tested the meat or give any other specifics of the analysis.

Taco Bell says its seasoned beef contains 88 percent USDA-inspected beef and the rest is water, spices and a mixture of oats, starch and other ingredients that contribute to the “quality of its product.” The company said it uses no extenders.

Still, the company couldn’t ignore the case after it made headlines and quickly spread online.

“This is one of those things that could be a humongous threat to their brand, which is why Taco Bell has taken such an aggressive stance on this,” said Marc Williams, an attorney at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough with extensive experience in fast-food litigation.

The case, Williams said, is thin in potential legal liability. Lawyers would have to prove that most consumers expect and believe they are getting something other than what Taco Bell actually serves. Most fast-food customers, he said, realize taco meat has other ingredients besides beef. And the lawsuit cites U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines for labeling ground beef, which don’t apply to restaurants.

The USDA’s rules apply to meat processors — the companies Taco Bell buys its meat from. Tyson Foods Inc., the company’s largest meat supplier, said it mixes and cooks the meat at three USDA-inspected plants and that the meat is tested daily to make sure it meets requirements.

Claims of false advertising typically are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission.

Since no foreign objects were found in the food, nor have any consumers been harmed by the contents of a Taco Bell burrito or taco, this could be a short-lived crisis for the fast food chain.  To their credit they did not let a law firm dictate the story through the filing of a law suit. Instead, Taco Bell made news of its own and began the education process to assure consumers the product they were consuming was indeed beef.   Taco Bell acted proactively and took the steps necessary to control any negative fallout from such a lawsuit.   That’s a great “ingredient” in handling any crisis situation.  Study the situation, prepare your response and act fast.  Where’s the beef in your crisis plan?

 Tom Cosentino

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