Yes, the meat in Dunkin’ Donuts’ Angus Steak breakfast sandwiches may look more like a sausage patty than a porterhouse or a ribeye, but does that mean it’s not actually “steak”? One customer says the sandwich doesn’t meet a federal definition for that term. But there’s a big bird-shaped problem with that definition.
A lawsuit [PDF], filed this week in a New York federal court, alleges that Dunkin’ deceived customers about the main ingredient in its Angus Steak and Egg sandwich and Angus Steak and Egg Snack N’ Go Wrap.
The complaint contends that while Dunkin’s advertising campaign centered on claims that these menu items contained “steak,” they are actually just ground beef.
The campaign, the suit claims, was a “scheme” by Dunkin’ that involved “disseminating false and misleading information via television commercials, Internet, point of purchase advertisements, and national print advertisements, all of which are intended to trick unsuspecting consumers” into believing they are “buying Angus Steak and Egg Sandwich & Angus Steak and Egg Wrap when in fact they were purchasing an inferior product, Angus Beef Patty and Egg Sandwich and Angus Beef Patty and Egg wrap.”
At the heart of the original complaint is a definition in the Code of Federal Regulations for “steak” — a definition that the plaintiff argues Dunkin’ fails to live up to.
There’s a bit of a problem that should become apparent when you actually look at the definition in question. It notes that “steak or fillet” consists of a “boneless slice or strip of poultry meat of the kind indicated.”
That’s right: This definition does not apply to beef steaks, but only to poultry steaks, meaning slabs of boneless chicken or turkey. In fact, the entire Subpart that includes this definition is about poultry. Definitions for beef and pork products are found elsewhere in the CFR.
We asked the attorney representing the plaintiffs in this case about the complaint’s repeated reference to this definition. In an email response, the lawyer acknowledged the “omission,” and said that the lawsuit will soon be amended. He maintained that there are federal limits on the amount of filler that a steak can contain before it’s considered ground beef or some other miscellaneous beef product, and that these sandwiches cross that line.
“Further, our Complaint revolves around deception of consumers, and in particular the consumer’s perception of what steak is,” noted the attorney.
The Department of Agriculture confirmed to Consumerist that there is no set regulatory definition of beef “steak,” so effectively any solid piece of meat can be called a “steak.” However, if that solid piece of meat is comprised of chopped, shaped, formed, or wafer sliced pieces of meat, then it’s actually what the USDA calls “fabricated steak,” and would carry a label like, “Beef Steak, Chopped, Shaped, Frozen,” or “Minute Steak, Formed, Wafer Sliced, Frozen.” You’ve probably seen this description on packages of frozen meat you might buy for making a cheesesteak at home.
But here’s where we run into another hiccup: The USDA’s “fabricated steak” designation does not apply to food sold at a restaurant, as the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does not regulate foods prepared at restaurants.
Ultimately, it may be a question of whether or not people felt deceived by Dunkin’s marketing, like ads in which actors and actresses proclaim “Steak and Eggs!” when presented with the sandwiches.
The plaintiff argues that customers paid a premium for these sandwiches, believing them to be made of higher quality ingredient than others. As a result, the suit seeks to monetary damages for customers and a court order barring Dunkin’ from promoting the meat as “steak.”
Consumerist has reached out to Dunkin’ for comment on the lawsuit. We’ll update this post when we hear back.