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Ryan E. Day

FDA Compliance

QC, QA, Sensationalism, and “Seasoned Ground Beef”

Media wouldn’t know quality if it bit them in the burrito

Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 05:00

The recent brouhaha involving a class-action suit against Taco Bell alleging that their beef filling is more filling than beef really got me thinking, but not about what’s in the tacos. Instead, it got me thinking about quality control, quality assurance, and particularly about customer satisfaction based on reasonable expectations. Because Taco Bell’s public image seems to have been hijacked by the media circus that sometimes passes as journalism, my thoughts focused mainly on the qualitative aspects of producing the world’s most famous taco.

I woke up at 3 a.m. and began an internal investigation of the basic tenets of the term qualitythose tenets being quality control and quality assurance.

In the day-to-day business world, the term quality is sometimes thrown around like a rag doll without any real thought to its meaning. Companies that actually produce a physical product, however, think about quality in a very real way every day.

Merriam-Webster defines quality as “a degree of excellence” and “a superiority in kind.” We could add to this “degree of conformance to specifications” and, paraphrasing Philip Crosby, “degree of conformance to customer expectations.”

Companies in the United States that produce food products are especially sensitive to quality control standards due to the stringent regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and rightly so. If a food manufacturer side-steps quality control regulations, things can end badly.

In this particular case concerning Taco Bell, my nocturnal musings led me to investigate the standards that one would use when judging the degree of excellence of “seasoned ground beef.”

Industrial manufacturers strive to meet voluntary guidelines as set forth by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission, The American National Standards Institute and others. Often these guidelines are your entry point into a particular market—a necessary but not mandatory requirement for doing business.  U.S. manufacturers of food products, on the other hand, must meet the guidelines of the USDA and FDA or go out of business—period.

So what are the USDA guidelines of excellence for “seasoned ground beef?” The United States’ Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is divided into 50 titles that cover everything from the president to the Panama Canal. Somewhere in the middle are several passages relating to “ground beef.”

9 CFR Part 319.15(a). In the miscellaneous beef products section within the definitions and standards of identity or composition for raw meat products of the CFR Title 9—“Animals and animal products” (or 9 CFR 319.15),” you’ll find: “‘Ground Beef’” shall consist of chopped fresh and/or frozen beef with or without seasoning and without the addition of beef fat as such, shall not contain more than 30 percent fat, and shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.” (Note the words: shall not contain added water, phosphates, binders, or extenders.)

It seems a fairly straightforward guideline. If there is proof that Taco Bell has purchased beef for use in its filling that does not meet this definition then it will have perpetrated some type of fraud, right?

According to the USDA, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat products is correctly labeled and packaged. In this role, it regulates meat suppliers to companies such as restaurant chains (like Taco Bell) to determine if those suppliers have met the FSIS labeling definition for “beef.” The department, according to a USDA source, does not play a role in regulating what restaurant chains later describe as “beef” or “meat” in ads to their customers. That would be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission.

It didn’t take long to find what appeared to be the germane guidelines used by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). An FTC Policy Statement on Deception defines the obvious. If you lie to inveigle someone to buy your stuff, you’ll be busted. In other words, the FTC might frown if you labeled something as "beef" if it wasn't.

Now if we add local health department regulations to the mix, it appears that Taco Bell is subject to a three-tier system of quality control, at least in a regulatory sense. So if we define quality as conformance to specifications (in this case, federal regulation) the question is simply this: “Does Taco Bell pass or fail the quality control test?” Let’s list the criteria and see. A little scrutiny may go a long way.

1. Using USDA-inspected beef is mandatory. According to Taco Bell, they purchase only  USDA-approved ground beef. So assuming they are telling the truth, they are not buying something other than “beef.”
2. Taco Bell must be truthful in its advertised ingredients. Taco Bell does not use misleading terms such as “all,” “pure,” or “100%” (see pages 9 and 10); instead it openly displays the ingredients of all its products, including its seasoned ground beef.
3. Taco Bell establishments must pass regular inspections by their respective local health departments. Taco Bell has been operating across the nation for decades without major health issues, leading one to assume local inspection criteria are being met.


Apparently benchmarks Nos. 1 and 3 are good to go, and unless testing proves the presence of an inordinate amount of fillers (i.e., more filler than beef), benchmark No. 2 is met, and Taco Bell has hit a quality grand slam.

And this is really what the current case against Taco Bell is about. Despite how this case has been presented by the media, it isn't really about quality. It’s not about whether Taco Bell’s beef filling tastes good. It’s about (some) customers' expectations regarding labeling. Labeling. Not quality. And assuming Taco Bell is innocent until proven guilty, and that when they advertise their beef burrito it really is a burrito made with beef—in all the legal meanings of the word, we can assume that customer expectations have been met and move on. Case closed.

As for me, I really don’t care if it’s beef or BEAF, it’s darn tasty and meets my requirements for quality. I’m definitely having a couple of Taco Supremes for lunch today.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.


Quality and Personal Requirements

"I really don’t care if it’s beef or BEAF™, it’s darn tasty and meets my requirements for quality."

Of course, regardless of what a label might say or what quality, measured by some other scale, a product does or does not possess, if it meets individual requirments that's "quality" for you.  A producer may have no idea what any individual consumer's quality "standard" is (speaking of market-driven, not custom, products).  If they use lower "quality" incredients, but you love the taste (which is your requirement), it has "quality" as far as you're concerned.

Your article may be a case of the old VW Bug vs Cadillac quality example.  Or perhaps, since it is about food, another quality statementI have heard:

"The kitchen help in a fast food restaurant and the chef at a 4-star one are both involved in cooking.  For the first, though, it's manufacturing; for the second, it's an art."

And which one has better "quality"?  Sounds like it may depend.

Labeling <> Quality?

"it isn't really about quality. It’s not about whether Taco Bell’s beef filling tastes good. It’s about (some) customers' expectations regarding labeling. Labeling. Not quality."

So labeling doesn't have anything to do with quality? I'd agree it does not have anything to do with the quality of the product contained insidxe the package which has the labeling on it.  Well, that is. unless you think a claim for what you should expect is a characteristic of the product is irrelevant to what the product actually it.

Quality has a lot to do with perception, at least from a customer satisfaction perspective.  So if you tell me a product has (or doesn't have) something in it and it turns out that isn't true, then I think it is fair to say that erroneous claim impacts quality.


If you're paying less than a dollar for your tacos, I think it's safe to say there's a lot of stuff besides real beef in the meat portion.  Consumers should wise up and the media should be less sensational and more factual.  I enjoyed the article.