Dunkin’ Donuts Lawsuit Involves Non-Dairy Surcharges

Dunkin' Donuts, the second most popular coffee shop chain in the United States, is facing a class-action lawsuit over accusations of discriminatory charges for non-dairy milk items. Apparently, not all of "America Runs on Dunkin."

Last month, 10 Dunkin’ customers with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy filed a $5 million suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, stating they received $0.50 to $2.15 surcharges on non-dairy alternatives for their beverages. They claim these surcharges are discriminatory by law due to their health condition.

The 10 plaintiffs are Dunkin’ customers from California, New York, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Hawaii. From 2018 to 2023, they each received surcharges for their coffee or tea-based drinks with "non-dairy alternatives, including plant-based or lactose-free milk."

Court documents note the average price of a Dunkin coffee beverage was $3.25 in 2023, which means some surcharges exceeded 40% of the average drink price. The lawsuit notes, "Also, milk is not the only ingredient in a drink at Dunkin, therefore the Surcharge represents an even higher percentage proportional to the price of milk (up to 200%)."

The lawsuit goes on to list how Dunkin’ provides healthier milk alternatives, such as 2% milk for free, and lists non-caffeinated items the same as normal caffeine options. Also, Dunkin' seeks to provide sugar-free sweeteners for customers who don’t want regular amounts. The lawsuit says no added "expertise" or "work" is required by Dunkin staff to replace 2% regular milk with non-dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, coconut, oat, or other lactose-free milk. Therefore, those with lactose intolerance or milk allergies are suffering discrimination.

"Dunkin charges customers with lactose intolerance and milk allergies an excessively high Surcharge to substitute Non-Dairy Alternatives in its drinks," the lawsuit reads. "In this way, Defendant’s conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act."

The lawsuit further attaches other state laws inferred by Dunkin'. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the Americans with Disabilities Act bars discrimination against individuals with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, and access to state and local government programs and services. Time will tell how the law applies to surcharges for non-dairy alternatives.

Milk allergy and lactose intolerance

According to the Boston Children’s Hospital, 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. Minority groups are more likely to suffer from the condition, with 80% of African Americans and Native Americans suffering from lactose intolerance. Asian Americans are the most impacted group, nearly 90% are lactose intolerant.

Milk allergy is one of the most common allergies around the globe. In the U.S., around 1.9% of adults suffer from milk allergies. Symptoms of a milk allergy in adults include skin rash, itching, swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat, stomach sickness, or negative thoughts.

How coffee chains deal with dairy-free milk

Dunkin’ is not the only coffee chain to include extra charges for non-dairy alternatives. Although costs vary across states, some Starbucks beverages, like lattes contain $0.70 surcharges. However, last year Starbucks announced customers can add up to 4 ounces of non-dairy milk to iced or hot tea and coffee beverages for no extra charge.

Peet’s Coffee, a popular cafe chain in California and located throughout the U.S., includes a $0.80 surcharge for non-dairy alternatives in some of its tea and coffee beverages. Last year, the coffee chain announced it would offer dairy-free milk upgrades.

Milk cost and its benefits

An analysis from Purdue University finds cow milk is cheaper than its alternatives. Regular dairy milk averages $0.03 per ounce, while lactose-free or reduced milk averages $0.065 per ounce. The cost for almond and soy milk is both around $0.05 per ounce, making them cheaper than lactose-free and reduced-milk prices.

One cup of 1% cow's milk contains 8 grams of protein and only 2 grams of fat. Soy milk holds 7 grams of protein along with 4 grams of fat. On the other hand, almond and oat milk contain 1 and 3 grams of protein, respectively. Almond and Oat milk both contain more than 3 grams of fat per cup.

However, the lawsuit states that people who are lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy do not have a choice in the matter. They explain that they cannot drink milk and should not be penalized for it.

Dunkin' Donuts has filed a waiver to acknowledge the lawsuit. They have yet to make a public statement.


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