Should Oat Milk in Your Dunkin’ Donuts Coffee Cost More Than Regular Milk? New Lawsuit Says No

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Pouring Over The Costs: Dunkin’ Donuts Accused Of Discrimination By Charging Customers More For Non-Dairy Alternatives.

Adding a splash of oat or almond milk to a Dunkin’ Donuts drink can cost you up to $2.15 more than regular milk, and some customers are saying that surcharge amounts to discrimination. In a proposed class action lawsuit, ten Dunkin’ customers claim the practice violates federal civil rights law for those who are lactose intolerant or have milk allergies, USA Today reports.

An easy swap

The Dunkin’ customers behind the proposed class action lawsuit, which was filed in Northern California, claim surcharges for substitutions of daily milk with non-dairy alternatives is a form of discrimination that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and remedying the situation would be easy for the fast-food giant. The lawsuit says there is “no material difference between the price of lactose-containing milks and the price of Non-Dairy Alternatives.”

However, the customers claim Dunkin’ is motivated by its profits to keep the surcharges coming, with the lawsuit claiming the company “created a separate, higher-priced menu, aimed at customers who cannot ingest milk.” Meanwhile, Dunkin’ doesn’t charge customers extra for opting for fat-free or skim milk, or for sugar-free or caffeine-free beverages.

“Dunkin’s policy of charging all customers a surcharge for non-dairy milks disproportionately affects persons with lactose intolerance and milk allergies," Bogdan Enica, an attorney for the customers, told USA TODAY. "The only choice for this group of people is to pay the surcharge."

Laws protect consumers

The lawyers for the customers are arguing that the policy violates several state anti-discrimination laws, as well as the ADA, as lactose intolerance and milk allergies are considered disabilities under the ADA. Overseas, however, Dunkin’ doesn’t charge the same added costs for non-dairy alternatives, showing it is possible to do the same in the United States.

“Being able to drink milk is a choice for some people, but it’s not for others. Lactose intolerance is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended,” Enica told NBC News. When the ADA was passed in 1990 it did not have provisions for people with allergens or intolerance to food, but those were incorporated by amendments in 2008. Under the law, businesses must make reasonable modifications not to exclude, segregate, or treat people with disabilities unfairly.

Why do people drink non-dairy milk?

There is a growing market for non-dairy milks in the United States, and it’s not expected to slow anytime soon, The New York Times reports. In 2022, non-dairy milks made up 20 percent of the market and $4 billion in sales, and brands are trying to grow their market by advertising to kids too, Bloomberg reports. The new and diverse products cater to a historically underserved market: lactose and dairy intolerant people. But they also serve a growing number of Americans who are concerned about farming's environmental impacts and animal welfare.  

Some of the most popular dairy alternatives are:

  • Almond Milk
  • Soy Milk
  • Coconut Milk
  • Oat Milk
  • Rice Milk
  • Cashew Milk
  • Hemp Milk

So what’s the fuss?

As the milks gain popularity and acceptance, businesses have to decide how to include them into their menus. Starbucks is facing a similar proposed class action lawsuit, where customers are accusing the beverage giant of discrimination, which it is trying to have dismissed.

Meanwhile, the dairy industry sees this growth in milk alternatives as a real threat to its market, Bloomberg reports, and it has become a contentious issue in politics and advertising. Last year, a teenager in California secured a settlement with her school district after filing a lawsuit that accused the school administration, L.A. Unified School District, and USDA of violating her first amendment rights by telling her to praise cow’s milk, the Washington Post reports.

Whatever your views on non-dairy milks, the issue at the heart of the proposed class action lawsuit is discrimination. Should businesses be able to charge more for alternative milks? Let us know your thoughts.

The plaintiffs are represented by Trenton R. Kashima of Milberg Coleman Bryson Phillips Grossman PLLC.

The Dunkin’s Donuts plant milk surcharge class action lawsuit is Garland et al v. Dunkin Donuts LLC, Case No. 3:23-cv-06621, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

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