Death Taco. No, that’s not the coolest new metal or grindcore band, although maybe it should be. It’s what I’m (of course) calling the newest Taco Bell menu item. I have had some inquires as to why I hadn’t mentioned it yet.
Well, I did make a faint mention via Facebook or Twitter a while ago, but had declined to rant here as I’ve been relentlessly trying to contact Taco Bell. You know how successful webforms are, so of course I got no answer from that, then I fished around for email addresses to send a full email, bugged them via Twitter for an address, and even posted an Ask Yahoo! question. Out of nowhere, I finally received a reply, and I have no idea if it was in reply to the webform, my emails to random Yum! Brands and Taco Bell email addresses, or some other forum.
I’d like to share my original messages with you. First the one via webform:
Hola, mis amigos de Titan Taco! Firstly, this isn’t about an incident at a specific Taco Bell, but the form didn’t allow room for general inquiries. I’d like to express my disappointment with a commercial that I saw advertising new shrimp tacos. Well, I guess my disappointment is not with the commercial, but with the product… and the main ingredient. I don’t think I can express my thoughts in a box with a mere 500-character limit. Do you have an actual email address where I can contact someone?
…And this was to some email addresses that I found after some Googling.
From: ERiC AiXeLsyD <email@example.com>
Date: Mon, Mar 8, 2010 at 4:11 PM
Subject: Taco Fail
To: firstname.lastname@example.org (and a bunch of other addresses)
Hola, mis amigos de Titan Taco!
I’d like to express my disappointment with a commercial that I saw advertising new shrimp tacos. Well, I guess my disappointment is not with the commercial, but with the product… and the main ingredient.
I have a severe shellfish allergy, and Taco Bell has been a shellfish-free dining safe haven for me for years. It’s one of the few places where I never had to worry about shrimp, crab, lobster, oysters, etc. ending up in my food, or worse yet… crossing paths in the kitchen somewhere.
I will sadly have to cross Taco Bell off of my list of places to dine… but I’d like you to know that there are many of us out here with severe shellfish allergies who have an increasingly difficult time finding safe places to dine out. Fast food joints have long been a safe-haven for those of us with a shellfish allergy… as most fine dining and now even chain family style restaurants have several shellfish dishes prepared on multiple kitchen surfaces. Formerly, as long as I stayed away from Long John Silver’s, I was OK. Taco Bell, KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, …were all safe places.
I guess I’ll now have to get my quick Mexican fix at Qdoba or Chipotle.
If you’d like to know what it’s like to dine out with a shellfish allergy, please read this blog post.
Here’s an excerpt…
If you know me in person, have dined out with me, or have ready any of my lunacy online… you most likely know what I have a severe shellfish allergy. What does that mean exactly? Well, it means that I can’t eat any shellfish, or I go into anaphylactic shock. Not only can I not eat the shellfish (that’s crustaceans & molluscs including but not limited to ,shrimp, prawns, lobster, crab, crayfish, oysters, mussels, clams, scallops, octopi, squid, snails, and probably even scorpions and pill bugs), but I can’t eat any food that comes into contact with it. That means, if you cook shrimp on the grill, take it off, and put my steak on without washing the surface, it’s the same as me eating the shrimp.
I certainly can’t expect the restaurant to clean the grill in between every meal, as that’s certainly not productive on their end… I just usually try to see where the shellfish is prepared, and eat from another cooking surface. That seems easy enough, right?
I get that it’s my responsibility. Yes, I’ve had an epi pen. But I’d really love to not ever have the need to use one. I’ve even considered getting Allergy Cards, but they seem a little pretentious or something… like my verbal reminder isn’t enough.
Well, getting me in to a place with shellfish is an issue in itself. Why? Well in with the aforementioned cooking surface issue…
I hope that this helps explain what people like me go through, and I hope that you re-consider selling death-filled tacos!
Running from the border,
And, this is the reply, although I’m not sure if it’s the reply to one of the above messages, or in poking around on Twitter:
From: Poetsch, Rob (Public Relations) <Rob.Poetsch@yum.com>
Date: Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 7:30 PM
Subject: Pacific Shrimp Taco Inquiry
To: “email@example.com” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: “Hunsaker, Brittany (Contractor)” <Brittany.Hunsaker@yum.com>
Thank you for taking the time to contact us about Shellfish allergens concerning our new Pacific Shrimp Tacos. We want you to know that we take these matters very seriously and that the business of our customers is our top priority. We value loyal customers such as yourself and would like to take the opportunity to win your business back.
To , to our customers who might have Shellfish allergens, we have displayed information at multiple locations in our fish. These include Shrimp allergen signs that are placed on our window and door clings as well as in our ads where orders are taken. While the Pacific Shrimp Tacos are offered for a limited time only, all Taco Bell employees have been trained and certified to not have any food products come in contact with Fish and Shellfish during cooking and/or serving.
We would like to send you some Taco Bell Bucks as a token of our thanks, so please email me back with your mailing address. We hope you will continue to “Think Outside the Bun” at Taco Bell, and appreciate you taking the time to write to us.
Taco Bell Public Relations
Taco Bell Corp.
One Glen Bell Way
Irvine, CA 92618
Of course, I needed to reply:
From: ERiC AiXeLsyD <email@example.com>
Date: Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 5:15 PM
Subject: Re: Pacific Shrimp Taco Inquiry
To: “Poetsch, Rob (Public Relations)” <Rob.Poetsch@yum.com>
Cc: “Hunsaker, Brittany (Contractor)” <Brittany.Hunsaker@yum.com>
Thank you for the reply! I was beginning to wonder if Taco Bell has a stand on the issue. While I am pleased to hear about the allergen warning signs along with the employee training and certification, I must say that I still have some reservations about safety. I am relieved to hear that the shrimp tacos are available for a limited time only.
It is great that you take responsibility in posting signs about allergy warnings. Your fellow Yum! Brands organization, Pizza Hut, ought to take note. They display allergen information on their website, noting that the pizza sauce may come into contact with shellfish… but there’s no shellfish on the menu. When I asked where the contamination may occur (e.g. in the processing/canning facility?) they were unable (or I sadly suspect unwilling) to provide a detailed response.
Back to the subject of Taco Bell… the giant window-clings showing what I’m sure to many is a succulent appetizing piece of shrimp spilling out of a lovely soft taco shell looks to me like a giant Mr. Yuck sticker or the old-time skull & cross-bones “poison” logo that you’d see in cartoons. They serve as an effective if not spine-chilling reminder as to the presence of shellfish allergens on the premises. They would also kick my survival instincts into gear, not even letting me enter the presence. Seriously. I would wager that right now, it would be pretty difficult to physically get me into a Taco Bell restaurant. My Eustachian tubes are starting to itch just thinking about it. I realize that this is also a highly personal mental health issue, but one that ought not be taken lightly, as it’s grounded in a very real fear.
Recently I read the blog of a man who almost died when he ordered a vegetarian Indian potato curry dish that he was assured was safe. Apparently the dish was flavored with a shrimp brine… which ought to be disturbing to vegetarians, vegans, kosher folks, and people with shellfish allergies. This is alarming to say the least. I realize that simple cross-contamination may not seem as serious as flavoring an entire dish with shrimp-juice, but I can assure you that it is indeed just as deadly. Our friends with wheat/gluten and peanut allergies seem to get a lot of attention lately, hopefully it will spill over to the rest of us with the “big 8” and those who aren’t even covered by that umbrella.
Have you taken the allergen training, or do you know what’s involved? I am finding it hard to tactfully express my concerns about the way that the message was conveyed to Taco Bell employees and the actual willingness of the employees to understand and comply. We’ve all watched training videos on various subjects and rolled our eyes, promptly taken pamphlets and placed them in the trash, or been angered when someone who doesn’t do our job gives us a new or added process that we must adhere to when we’re sure that the person suggesting the changes has never been in our shoes.
While I mean no disrespect to Taco Bell or any fast food restaurant, have you been to a Taco Bell lately? Sometimes I am concerned about the personal hygiene and motivation of the employees let alone the cleanliness and efficiency of the kitchen. Sadly, the low quality and poor service of fast food establishments has become a passively accepted facet of 21st Century life in the United States. For evidence, I give you the term “McJob“.
I have a theory that for so long now, it has been expressed to kids everywhere to get higher education so you don’t end up as a laborer, janitor, or fast food employee… that fast food jobs have garnered such a negative connotation, the only people left willing to take the jobs are the highly unmotivated individuals, people with no other options, or people using the part time jobs for extra cash with no real pride in their work since there’s no real fear of losing the job or striving to move up the chain of command.
I would invite you to imagine that in the Taco Bell kitchen where you are about to dine there are the standard (and innovative!) sour cream and cheese caulking-gun looking dispensers all loaded on the food preparation area… along side a caulking-gun-looking dispenser filled with a highly toxic pest-control chemical that looks interestingly enough like cheese or sour cream. Would you still feel safe in eating there? Sure. The employees can read. Sure, they know the difference. Are they ever rushed in a fast food kitchen? Do mistakes ever happen? Of course. I’m guessing you would at least think twice or watch closely before you dine.
I understand that this scenario is preposterous because I would hope that some sort of federal regulations would forbid any toxic chemicals from being stored in a food preparation area. No such federal regulations exist for people like me, although Massachusetts is moving forward with this type of thing.
While I trust that your training an certification was put forth with the best of intentions, you must understand that I question its implementation, practicality, and how it’s received and practiced by what amounts to be the first line of contact with your customers… the Taco Bell team member. What exactly does the certification say? Does each employee have it, or does a certification apply to an entire restaurant or shift?
I challenge you to quiz the workers at Taco Bells in various locations… inner city, suburbs, malls, and the combo units, and see how much the workers really know about cross-contamination and allergy issues and how they’re observed in a Taco Bell kitchen. (Hopefully, they fare better than Subway employees.)
All that said, I appreciate and applaud the considerable thought and effort that has already gone into allergen awareness. Spreading knowledge is the first step. Did you know that May 9th-15th 2002 is the thirteenth annual Food Allergy Awareness Week? Now is the time to act and inform, my friend!
I would certainly appreciate some Taco Bell Bucks, if you’ll understand that I may hold on to them until well after the current Pacific Shrimp Taco promotion is over. (Pending reviews, it may not last all that long, eh?) Taco Bell had previously been a shellfish-free Mexican-ish fast food haven for me for many many years. I can’t tell you how many tacos I ate at the mall nearby to where I grew up when I was a teenager. A dollar went much further at Taco Bell than it did at McDonald’s, Burger King or anywhere else in the food court.
My address is…
Pittsburgh, PA XXXXX-XXXX
I would like to thank you once again for your time and the thoughtful informative reply. I look forward to perhaps what may be a continued dialog about allergy awareness issues in the fast food industry, and more specifically relating to Taco Bell and other Yum! Brands.
Wow, do I hope they write back.