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January 2011 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

Taco Bell Fights Back

Jan 28, 2011

Told you this would be entertaining.

Even Stephen Colbert took note of Taco Bell's problems, trying the Beefy Crunch Burrito, and pronouncing the filling as "beefish," and "beef-esque." "On  a scale of 1 to beef," he said,  it's got something in there."

Now Taco Bell is fighting back against the lawyers who say the company is advertising beef but selling fillers. "Thank you for suing us" say a series of ads the company ran Friday in high profile

They say their "seasoned beef" mixture is 88% beef and 12% "secret recipe."

"Secret recipe?"  Hmmmm.

Your reporter (having admitted earlier to be an un-fan of the Taco Bell version of Mexican food) remains skeptical. The USDA rules seem to say you can't hide extenders in a product and still label it as "seasoned beef." But right there in the ads, they say that "isolated oat product"
is listed as the most important "seasoning" in the mix.

"Seasoning? Isolated oat product?"  Salt is a seasoning, Pepper is a seasoning.  Garlic is a seasoning. The ads say that unseasoned ground beef is "bland." I'll grant them that.  But what about "isolated oat product?" That's not bland? That adds to the "Taco Bell's signature taste and texture"?
Hmmmmmmm with more mmms. I bet it adds more to the texture than to the flavor.

Soon we'll know, I suppose. Ain't the American judicial system a great way to run a country? It's hard to believe some people are anti-trial lawyer.

Here's the label for Taco Bell's seasoned beef:

"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, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Silicon Dioxide, Natural Flavors, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch,
Natural Smoke Flavor], Salt, Sodium Phosphates. CONTAINS SOYBEAN, WHEAT"


Taco Bell’s No-Win Defense

Jan 27, 2011

We should have been suspicious when we heard they called that rat-looking little “Quiero Taco Bell” dog “Senor Filler.”

Ok. That’s unfair, but Taco Bell got themselves into this, and it will be entertaining to watch them dig their way out.

Taco Bell’s statement on the suit alleging its beef ain’t beefy enough fails to convince me. If you’ve been following the story, the charges from the trial attorneys is that they were taking delivery on “taco filling meat” and advertising it as “beef.” If you read the official USDA definitions of what you can and can’t call different stuff, it looks like they’ve been caught with their hands in the oat meal. In fact when you go to their web site, one of the features is a “beefy crunch burrito.”

Maybe they should have to say “beef-like crunch burrito.” The best Taco Bell is going to come out on this is perhaps winning an argument over whether a few percentage points in their mixture lets them legally call it “beef.”

Well, the better best for them might actually be to send a few million to the trial lawyers, change the mixture, and go on. These lawyers—go to their site at—may be little more than high dollar ambulance chasers, but they have a track record.

Ok, let me back off. We are getting close to, as Mr. Obama would call it, “relitigating” the intraindustry debate of the 70s, when soy fillers were becoming popular. The argument was over the impact on beef demand. On the one hand, if a 6-oz patty is half soy or oats, you only sell half as much beef. But if you sell twice as many because of improved taste (I kid you not. That’s the claim.) or reduced price, the demand was ok.

The argument I don’t remember us having is that mislabeling thing. Do you want a company marketing mushy-flavored, 40% beef mixtures under your brand name? That’s what the word “beef” is, you know. That’s where the rule came from of course, but nobody enforces it, apparently. Not the government. Not the Beef Checkoff folks.

I have eaten at Taco Bell. Some years back, when our kids were home and selecting the family cuisine based on advertising prowess, I ate there enough to learn to start the conversations like this: “Where do we want to eat and, please, not Taco Bile?”

Once, on a road trip through New Mexico when I was pretty savvy with the state and knew all the local places, we spent a couple of days eating like Spanish royalty along the back roads. New Mexico native cooks can do things with meats and chilis nobody else can do. Tastes that exist nowhere else in the world.

When we caught sight of Las Cruces toward the end, there was a fast food sign—Taco Bell, maybe—and my son said, “Ahhh. At last. Real food.”

So, between that and McNuggets, fast food advertising and much of their food left a long-lingering nasty taste in my mouth. I didn’t know until now—hadn’t thought to ask—that the mushiness I remember from fast food taco “meat” probably wasn’t meat at all. Of course a fast fooder is going to push the ingredient regulations to the legal limit.

The company’s current statement expresses umbrage at the very thought they have misled anybody. But the lawyers have a picture of the box with the ingredient labels. It says it’s taco filling. USDA rules draw a clear distinction between taco filling and beef. So, unless those kids in the plastic gloves are adding beef back to the taco filling, I’m inclined to vote guilty. (Taco Bell, by the way, keeps referring me and apparently others to their official statement. So I suppose that’s the best they’ve got.)

My job here is to look at this on how it impacts beef demand. Taco Bell may sell a lot of filler, but they also sell a lot of beef. So we should wish them no ill. On the other hand, my tongue keeps remembering that texture and it reminds me that price isn’t everything.


My palate is of a different era, though. I am so old I remember when fried chickens had pully bones and milk fat separated in the ice box.


I suppose those of my kids’ generation like different stuff. So I’ll not judge Taco Bell. But it would be nice if they couldn’t just call any old thing “beef.” Those chicken tacos—the ones the law suit says really are chicken—might not be so popular if Taco Bell’s customers’ other choice was the sort of beef—which is made up of, well, beef—that those New Mexico concineros use.



Trace Beef not Cattle?

Jan 25, 2011

Mandatory animal ID may be near dead at the moment, but don’t think that means we can all forget the idea. The non-meat food industry is about to get a dunking into the value of food traceability—see the Washington Post piece at

The law doesn’t apply to meat and poultry products, but you’ve got to wonder whether that will matter in the end. If government, consumerist groups or, more importantly, consumers, like the way it works on melons and beans, don’t you suppose beef and eggs might be next

Don't think I mean I'm sure of that. This is a prime example of the sort of expensive, hard-to-manage rules that have made big Ag successful. Jon Tester won an amendment that exempts the smallest, direct-to-consumer, farmers-market type producers, but it will apply to most commercial scale producers.

But that same concept would not apply to many of the beef producers I know. It could exempt the people who don’t put product into the food chain—who sell it all to the neighbors—but that wouldn’t be many of us. Even the most successful direct marketers I’ve heard about have to take a few cattle to the auction.

I’m a big fan of beef safety. I’m a big fan of traceability. If I’m selling a nasty bug to a feedyard and it is finding its way to some poor consumer, I’d like to know about it and find a way not to do it.

But it worries me that it will be much easier for pork and poultry producers. Those pigs and chicks move through the system like bumps through a snake. They can already be traced back to their birth moms. Cattle not so much. Even if a packer can trace a cut of meat back to the feedyards—which most can—in most cases they can’t go any further.

I don’t see the public liking that for much longer. The technology’s here. It’s not all the expensive. They’re going to start asking their grocers how come they can see who grew their melons and can’t find the same about their beef?

Should we be scared of that?


On the one hand, it will be easier and cheaper for pork and poultry. On the other, when that consumer scans the bar code, he’ll just get a picture of a hen house that looks like all the other hen houses. When he scans a T-bone, he might get a picture of your ranch. That strikes me as a pretty good selling point.


But there might be more value for that consumer to know which packer the product came from. To some extent, you’d be forcing a “brand” onto processors, making them more accountable for, not just the safety, but the quality, of the product. They might, in such circumstance, be able to scare up a few more pennies a head to do more aging or pay extra for tenderness genes or otherwise try harder not to put a product out there that embarrasses us.


I know a lot of folks get livid when you talk about mandatory ID. But I’ve used electronic ID tags. My premise is registered. Yawn. It doesn’t take much of a premium to pay for that.


People are going to like this stuff when they learn about it. It’s going to be worth some money to producers. It already makes it easier to sell overseas and will only get more so as time passes. Moreover, it lets the backyard hen, goat and horse raisers off the hook, so maybe won’t generate so much opposition.


Alas, it won’t be real effective in tracing animal health problems. We’ll just to climb that mountain of carcasses when we come to it.

Jim Leachman Charged with Starving Horses

Jan 24, 2011

Check out this story from Jan Falsted at the remarkably good Billings Gazette that will sadden anybody who remembers the glory that, so few years ago was Leachman Cattle Co. This free market stuff can be so cruel.

Here’s a personal aside, if it’s ok with the editors-that-be:

I’m mostly retired to the ranch—out to pasture, so to speak—but at the moment the doctor has me confined to the indoors under orders not to do any “housework or yardwork” for a while. I believe I’ll spend a little more time looking around for interesting stuff to read and comment on. Just to get under Ringman’s skin, if for no other reason.

If you hear of something interesting, drop me a line please at

I'm just sitting here.

An Empty Promise

Jan 22, 2011

A couple of New York Times writers at (follow this link to read) put their finger on the problem with President Obama’s substance-free promise to eliminate dumb federal regulations.

If you buy that, I’ve got a check here from Eastern Livestock I’d like you to cash for me.
Had the man promised to do cost-benefit analysis of all regulations, you might have something. But there’s no way he’s going to do that. Too many of those federal rules have too much support from this or that constituency and dozens of the most politically expedient would never pass muster. They’re based more on whose principles hold sway than what makes sense. That’s why we’ve got—with the president promising less needless regulation—a USDA pushing this very needless bunch of new restrictions on the cattle industry’s internal deal-making.
The Times’ example of the back-up camera is a fine case in point. But let’s think of others you and I agree are dumb. How about the regulation forbidding slaughter of wild horses? What’s the cost-benefit of that? Or the EPA’s dust regulations, at a time when aggregate dust loads are being annually reduced by better farming practices and paving the best farmland in the country for parking lots at Wal-Marts and government offices?
Or, how about the EPA declaring CO2 a pollutant? Where’s the cost-benefit analysis of that, Mr. President?
To their credit, and thanks to a lot of political pressure, USDA has agreed to do a cost-benefit on its proposed new livestock marketing regulations. But how do you do that fairly? Who referees and decides the cost/benefit of requiring packers to offer me the same deal they offer Paul Engler? How do you value using federal regulations to force packers and chicken processors and consumers to pay more than they economically need to in the name of “fairness.” You figure, what? An inefficient producer staying in business is worth X while a less efficient producer not being rewarded with more business is worth Y?
It’s like trying to figure the cost of that spotted owl silliness. Maybe you can estimate how much it costs to put loggers on welfare and import more timber, but that’s just X. The Y is the value of a useless spotted owl. To me, that would be how many mice he removes from the environment. But I don’t suppose the folks at the Sierra Club would agree.
All the power in this sort of math goes to the guys picking the guys who set the values of X and Y.

And that probably won’t be you and me.

Eastern Livestock and Dodo Birds

Jan 10, 2011

Eastern Livestock and dodo birds

They say the reason dodo birds went extinct was they were unaccustomed to predators and stood like a dodo while newly arrived humans harvested them for their dodo meat. They were what you call “naive.” Too trusting because they spent all their time with other dodo birds, I suppose.

A lot of rural folks, careful husbands of soil and livestock, careful about machinery upkeep and double careful with money management, are just about that naive, as well. It looks like Tommy Gibson was willing to take advantage of that well-known fact. At least that’s the gist of what James Knauer, the court appointed trustee for the Eastern Livestock bankruptcy, blogged on the Web site he established at
after he got a look at the very-cooked books:

I am sitting here in this large building alone looking at a check made to Eastern Livestock for approximately $578,000 – allegedly in payment for a cattle shipment.  Aside from the fact that transactions of this size rarely, if ever, occur, and there are no records of any cattle deliveries to support it - there is an additional problem.  The person who is supposed to have signed the check had been dead for some time on the date the check was issued.  I think this typifies the type of problem we are up against in investigating this massive fraud.

“Massive fraud,” he calls it. I admit that I was raised rural and naive. I knew there were crooks and thieves and sharpies—I watched TV some—but I didn’t know how easily some people could lie to your face. When the Army sent me to New Jersey for a spell, I bought a car from a fellow soldier. He took the money and told me he needed to use the car a while. Then he sold it to somebody else and gave the other guy the title.

He was incredulous that I was angry. “What did you expect?” he asked. “You need to learn how we do business in Newark.” He convinced me, finally, that he gave me my money’s worth in education. I believe I’d paid him like $300, so that might have been a fair bargain, but through the year’s I’ve learned several times that I could have used more early education.

I am surprised to learn that Tommy Gibson was apparently kiting checks and double booking cattle. When they filed on him, Fifth Third said he had used fraudulent accounts, inflated his sales figures, claimed fraudulent cattle and all that typical stuff that you associate with your typical, low-life pig thief. I’ve talked to quite a few people who did extensive business with him and who are more shocked than I.

But I guess Bernie Madoff’s friends were surprised too.

There will, of course, always be crooks. What is more disturbing to me now is the apparent lack of any action at USDA as regards the laughably inadequate bonding requirements on cattle traders. I tried to ask them if they’ve got a program going. No call-back. I called the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to see what they’ve heard. It turns out USDA hasn’t called them back, either.

Obviously, the powers-that-be at GIPSA are mad with NCBA over other issues. I presume that, somewhere behind the scenes, somebody in the agency or Congress is working to up date the bonds for traders. Sale barns and packers seem to be well covered, by the way, and that’s a good thing in this circumstance, because a lot of auctions were caught in this and many of their customers may have to rely on the sale’s bond.

But a set of regulations that requires packers and auctions to make immediate payment to their sellers and allows traders to float millions of dollars around the country backed by nothing more than tiny bonds and their good will is stuff even a dodo would avoid. It’s an example of the false sense of security afforded by laws and regulations designed by people who don’t understand what business is about.

They might as well get me to write the things and I trust everybody.

Until I hear from USDA that they have a new set of regulations on the books, I’d suggest every seller tell the order buyers, politely, not to send the trucks until they can have the driver deliver a certified check for the full amount. I, like most cattle people, have no way to assess creditworthiness. That’s what banks do. If the guy can’t get a bank to let him hold the cash, why should I let him hold my cattle?

Buyers will argue that they can’t do that without knowing the final weight of the cattle, but then I believe I’d suggest they just write the check big enough to cover the highest estimates.

And then I’d say, “I’ll send you a check for the difference after weigh up. You can trust me as much as I can trust you, don’t you think?”

Here's some links to related articles on Beef Today and AgWeb that you might find interesting:

Bouncing Bad Checks and Bad Guys


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