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Starbucks faces lawsuit for tacking on charge for nondairy milk in drinks

Three lactose-intolerant women are steamed over a surcharge for nondairy milk substitutions in Starbucks beverages.

California residents Maria Bollinger, Dawn Miller and Shunda Smith filed a lawsuit earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging the coffee giant discriminated against customers with lactose allergies by charging them an extra fee for nondairy alternatives to its coffee-based drinks and other beverages. 

"Starbucks charges customers with lactose intolerance and milk allergies an excessively high surcharge to substitute non-dairy alternatives in its drinks," according to the complaint, which seeks restitution as well as monetary damages.

The "excessively high" fee alleged in the suit involves a surcharge ranging from 50 cents to 80 cents on Starbucks beverages that contain nondairy, lactose-free options, such as soy, almond, coconut, oat and other plant-based milks. Non-dairy milks typically cost more than regular dairy, with 2022 data finding that plant-based products cost about $7.87 per gallon compared with $4.21 per gallon for cow's milk, according to Marketplace.

Lactose intolerance, which affects 30 million to 50 million Americans, qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiffs claim that by charging extra for plant-based milks in their beverages, Starbucks violated their rights under the ADA and California Unruh Civil Rights Act, a law that bars businesses from discriminating against residents of the state on the basis of age, race, sex, disability and other criteria. 

A Starbucks spokesperson said the company can't comment on pending litigation, but noted that domestic customers do have nondairy options at no extra charge. 

"In U.S. Starbucks stores, at no additional cost, customers can add up to four ounces of nondairy milk to hot or iced brewed coffee or tea, cold brew and Americano beverages," the spokesperson said. 

Starbucks bringing pork-flavored coffee to China 01:13

Members of the Starbucks' Rewards loyalty program also can redeem points to get nondairy milk when it is not part of the standard recipe.

Starbucks uses 2% cow's milk in most of its coffee-based beverages, according to the lawsuit, which argues that the chain will substitute whole milk, half-and-half, or fat-free skim milk for free. The same goes for sugar-free sweeteners, which can also be used to replace regular sugar upon request for no additional charge, the lawsuit states.

"There is no expertise or additional work required of Starbucks employees that would substitute whole milk or fat-free milk in place of 2% regular milk, or who would make caffeine-free or sugar-free  beverages, to also be able to substitute non-dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, coconut, oat, or other lactose-free 'milk' in place of 2% regular milk," according to the claim.

Starbucks isn't the only restaurant chain to come under fire for tacking on charges for plant-based milk. Dunkin' in January was hit with a similar suit, while a number of other coffee sellers around the country are also being called out for nondairy milk charges.

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