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Why Taco Bell's "Fake Beef" Counterattack Just Backfired

When class action lawyers hit Taco Bell (YUM) last week with a suit alleging that the company's taco meat filling is a highly processed, fake beef concoction, the company fought back with provocative ads, You Tube video and TV appearances for CEO Greg Creed. None of this was a good idea.

The company was, of course, right to get its core message out there -- that its taco meat is 88% beef and not the 34% alleged in the lawsuit. But that's where Creed and his undoubtedly weary PR department should have stopped. If they had, there would have been no more news to report and the whole thing would drift into the far corners of a crowded news cycle. Then we all go back to talking about Sarah Palin's latest diatribe and the protests in Egypt.

Instead, Taco Bell's full page ads in major newspapers (see bottom) and Greg Creed's romp through TV newsrooms only served to make people more aware of the fact that Taco Bell uses strange ingredients in its food. Each time more TV segments appeared on the controversy, the list of dubious taco ingredients popped onto the screen.

A particularly unfortunate moment occurred during George Stephanopoulos' Good Morning America interview with Creed on Friday. "What's an isolated oat product? What's that doing in beef filing?" he asked. Creed had to respond that he had no idea: "I'm not a food scientist. But what I can tell you is that every ingredient is in there for a purpose." Good to know they're not in there just for giggles.

There's no point in running ads claiming your tacos are just like the ones grandma used to make when in fact some of the components are so strange that even the CEO has no idea what they are. The company's ads talk about "seasonings," "Mexican spices" and garlic powder, but ingredients like isolated oat product, silicon dioxide, modified corn starch and anti-dusting agents have a way of speaking for themselves.

Taco Bell has printed ingredients on its web site for years and no one's bothered to read them until now. That's been a good thing for the company. It's not just tacos. Here are the many bizarre ingredients for the Southwest Chicken:

Chicken Breast Meat With Rib Meat, Water, Seasoning [Salt, Maltodextrin, Spices, Garlic Powder, Chili Pepper, Paprika, Onion Powder, Carrageenan, Disodium Inosinate, Disodium Guanylate, Natural Flavoring, Mixed Triglycerides, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Corn Syrup Solids, Yeast Extract, Alginates (Sodium, Calcium And/Or Ammonium), Cellulose, Calcium Chloride, Sodium Benzoate Used To Protect Quality, Not More Than 2% Silicon Dioxide Added To Prevent Caking, Soybean Oil], Modified Food Starch, Sodium Phosphates Soy Lecithin (Used As A Processing Aid)
The Mango Frutista Freeze doesn't have any mango in it and the nacho cheese sauce isn't real cheese. I could go on, but the point is that companies with successful consumer brands shouldn't pretend to be something they're not. Taco Bell's message should have been that they sell reliable, tasty products that are practically free. A lot of customers, especially those who can't or don't want to pay more for their food, probably would have just accepted that.

Image by Flickr user Like_the_Grand_Canyon

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