There are several worthwhile messages tucked into Yum Brands' (YUM) recent "Did You Know?" food quality brochure. For instance, the fast food giant -- owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC -- highlights the fact that KFC's Kentucky Grilled Chicken Meal is only 415 calories and that the chain sells corn-on-the-cob, which is a good source of fiber and folic acid.
And then there's this on page 3: "We use only high quality USDA-inspected chicken in our restaurants." Here, Yum is asking its customers to believe that the official-sounding term "USDA inspected," which the company also trotted out in January in ads defending Taco Bell's beef against a lawsuit, actually means something. It doesn't.
There are several levels of absurdity here. Virtually all of the meat sold in the U.S. is USDA-inspected. Federal inspectors are required in slaughterhouses if the meat is being sold out of state, which is almost always the case. To market your chicken or beef as USDA-inspected is like boasting the potatoes for your fries were grown in dirt.
And having a USDA inspector glance at the meat that will become your fried chicken as it's whizzing along a conveyor line (usually in carcass form) doesn't mean it's going to be free from deadly bacteria or other contaminants. The burger meat that paralyzed Stephanie Smith was USDA inspected, as was the salmonella-infected chicken that went into Marie Callender's pot pies a few years ago.
This is not to say that federal meat inspectors are worthless. They're charged with making sure that diseased animals don't make it into the food supply and that meat processors are following their own food safety guidelines. But while an inspector can point out a cow with a big clump of poop still stuck to its hide, he or she can't see E. coli or other harmful bacteria.
And for all their usefulness, there have been well-documented problems with the USDA's meat inspection system. A Humane Society investigation in 2007 showed crippled cows being tormented and sent into the food supply at a Southern California slaughter plant, despite the fact that several inspectors were at the plant every day.
Overall, Yum's food quality push doesn't hold much credibility, since useful factoids are undercut by meaningless boasts, misleading assertions and unverifiable info, including, but not limited to, the fact that Yum says all its Pizza Hut toppings are all natural, but then declines to provide an ingredient list so customers can see for themselves.
So in the end, we still don't know.
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