Taco Bell meat? Beef, says firm. Filling, says suit.

Taco Bell meat has too little beef to be called beef, a lawsuit charges. 'Absolutely wrong,' the fast-food chain says of the suit.

Gary C. Knapp/AP Images for Taco Bell/File
Sailors from the aircraft carrier, USS Dwight D. Eisenhower were among the first to try Taco Bell's new Steak Cantina Taco on July 28, 2010 in Norfolk, Va. A new lawsuit charges that the Taco Bell meat the chain advertises as beef is really meat filling.

When is beef not beef?

When it's served in a Taco Bell taco, alleges a California woman in a class-action lawsuit. The suit, filed Friday, claims that the fast-food giant uses so much other ingredients in its meat that it no longer qualifies as beef.

Taco Bell, based in Irvine, Calif., fired back in a statement Tuesday, saying that the suit is "absolutely wrong" and that it planned legal action of its own.

The dispute revolves around how much can be mixed in with beef and still be called beef.

In its raw or frozen form, ground beef "shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders," according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It can include seasonings or not.

To hear Taco Bell tell it, that's exactly what it does:

"We start with 100 percent USDA-inspected beef," the company says in its statement. "Then we simmer it in our proprietary blend of seasonings and spices to give our seasoned beef its signature Taco Bell taste and texture."

That "texture" is where the legal wrangling begins over Taco Bell meat.

"In reality, a substantial majority of the filling is comprised of substances other than beef," the lawsuit alleges. And those seasonings?

"Those ingredients are not added for flavor, but rather to increase the volume of the product," the suit charges. "These ingredients are binders and extenders such as 'isolated oat product.' "

One piece of evidence the suit puts forward is purportedly a Taco Bell label on a meat container it ships to its restaurants. That shipping label reads: "Taco Meat Filling," not beef.

Taco meat filling, according to the USDA's Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, must contain at least 40 percent fresh meat, says Beasley, Allen, Crow, Methvin, Portis & Miles, the Montgomery, Ala., law firm that filed the suit. The one plaintiff named in the class-action suit, Amanda Obney of California, is not asking for monetary damages, but wants Taco Bell to stop advertising its meat filling as beef.

Taco Bell, owned by Yum! Brands, isn't backing down in the face of the allegations.

"We are proud of the quality of our beef and identify all the seasoning and spice ingredients on our website," the company said in its statement "Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later – and got their "facts" absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food."

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