You’ve probably heard about the recent class action lawsuit filed against Taco Bell, alleging that their tacos don’t really contain beef (or, rather, contain only 33% beef, plus a variety of “extenders” and “non-meat substances” ranging from “autolyzed yeast extract” to silicon dioxide, a.k.a. sand). (Presumably, this will be an easier plaintiff class to recruit than the potential plaintiffs in the YouPorn/“History Sniffing” lawsuit we reported on last month. But maybe I’m overestimating people’s willingness to admit eating Taco Bell.) According to the lawsuit, Taco Bell is misleading the public by saying its products contain “real beef” when, in fact, the products only contain the appetizingly-named “taco meat filling.” Although I find it hard to believe that anyone might have actually decided to go to Taco Bell thinking their taco was going to be 100% beef (it’s fast food, people!), these types of lawsuits are quite common, and the legal foundation of the claim is fairly straightforward.
Boiled down to its essence, Taco Bell is accused of trying to mislead the public about the quality of its product. Legally, Taco Bell’s statements about its meat are considered “commercial speech” — Taco Bell is trying to get people to buy tacos (well…“tacos,” anyway). The First Amendment provides limited protection for commercial speech, and rule #1 is: you have to tell the truth. So, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission can pass laws restricting what fast food chains can and cannot say about their food. The same is true for other products, like vitamins, weight loss supplements and the like (hence the lawsuits against the makers of Men’s One-A-Day and Airborne, as well as trainer/TV personality Jillian Michaels, endorser of Calorie Control). So the question for Taco Bell is simple: did it comply with applicable regulations when touting its tacos as having “real beef” in them?
Taco Bell’s response, on the other hand, was fascinating. Taco Bell took out full-page “Thank You For Suing Us” ads in major newspapers across the country denying the allegations in the complaint. That’s not too surprising. But, Taco Bell did more than just offer facetious thanks and deny the allegations.