Tacos and Meatballs, oh my!

If you follow food news, by now you’ve probably heard that what passes for beef at Taco Bell appears to be only a small bit of beef combined with slurry of fillers named by lawyers to obscure their real identity and provenience. (So what’s an “isolated oat product”, anyway?) Here’s the list:

Beef, Water, Seasoning [Isolated Oat Product, Salt, Chili Pepper, Onion Powder, Tomato Powder, Oats (Wheat), Soy Lecithin, Sugar, Spices, Maltodextrin, Soybean Oil (Anti-Dusting Agent), Garlic Powder, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Silicon Dioxide, Natural Flavors, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Smoke Flavor], Salt, Sodium Phosphate

An Alabama law firm is suing Taco Bell for deceptively calling this mixture beef, as beef, their sample testing is alleged to show, makes up only 36% of it. And to some people, let’s say reasonable ones, that ain’t enough.

According to Grist here:

Evidently, what Taco Bell identifies as “seasoned beef” has so many binders and extenders that it fails the minimum USDA labeling requirements for beef products

What’s interesting is the public reaction to all this, half of which runs along the lines of, “I like this stuff, so what’s the problem?”

And nobody ever replies with the obvious: “Then eat all you want of it!”

Because whether you like it or not, your liking or disliking isn’t part of the equation. Deceptive advertising is. You see, the problem is that an honest guy trying setting a realistic price for his honest beef taco can’t be expected to compete with a corporate monster with an enormous ad budget who’s lying about what he’s slapping on your plastic plate—and that, ladies and gents, should seem basically wrong to anybody human who possesses a brain (and it explains why there are so goddam many industrial crap restaurants in “let ‘em lie, they’re richer than I” America).

But let’s be clear: if Taco Bell wants to sell $1 oatmeal tacos it has every right to.

Because, really, fillers aren’t the problem. Ever tasted a sublime Italian meatball? I’m not talking about one of those hard-as-bocce-ball “meatballs” you get at a fast food joint hidden under a writhing mass of overcooked spaghetti, but a real meatball, a polpettone made by an Italian grandmother.

If you manage to get the recipe from said grandmother, which is not likely to contain any reference whatsoever to amounts, you might still be amazed that the secret to the dish is bread. Yes, pure filler. This is cucina povera after all.

The bread is not just something to fill the space and deceive you into thinking you’re sinking your molars into pure beef. It is an essential structural element in the dish that keeps the meatball from taking on that bocce-ball character. Besides, the best polpettone absorb sauce (or you can use the more romantic “marry to the sauce”) like no “pure beef” meatball possibly could. And they are delightfully soft.

So, what I’m telling you is that even filler is not a problem if somebody has thought things through and is not trying to deceive folks.

Let’s get this one fact straight: A free market is only free if consumers know what they’re buying. Otherwise it’s a thieves market. And that is the simple problem.

So journalists, let’s not go overboard and polarize the masses by gushing “The list of ingredients is gruesome” when it contains water, like gizmodo did. Let’s just report exactly what’s in there so that people who don’t particularly want to load up on “Natural Smoke Flavor” and “Isolated Oat Product” can, with the information provided, choose to consume or not. And then, if all goes well, the guy with the great idea to put real beef in his tacos can prosper too—and we can have a choice.

And finally—can we get some more Italian grandmothers in here? I’m gosh-awful hungry.

Tacos and Meatballs, oh my! originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com , updated: Jan 28, 2011 © .

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