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January 29, 2018

Starbucks Wins Underfilled Latte Cup Case

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:40 am

Starbucks Two years ago, we told you about an issue of Starbucks allegedly underfilling cups of its latte because it was counting the height of the milk foam in its calculations of the number of fluid ounces in each cup.

Well, a United States district court judge in California just ruled in the company’s favor. In her ruling, she deflated each of the consumer plaintiffs’ legal theories.

They first claimed that only if the cups were filled to the brim, which they tended not to be, did they hold the promised 12 ounces, 16 ounces, or 20 ounces. However, the consumers’ own expert testified that in fact the capacity of each of the cups was 14.5 fl. oz. for a Tall, 18.5 for a Grande, and 22.8 for a Venti beverage — more than enough room for the promised amount.

The consumers’ lawyers next claimed that the foam and its height should not be used to calculate the total volume of the beverage. The judge disagreed saying that since the plaintiffs themselves say that lattes are composed of three ingredients, expresso, steamed milk, and milk foam, that all three ingredients count in determining the total measure.

The plaintiffs’ final theory was that the Starbucks recipe cards themselves don’t call for enough ingredients when added together to meet the promised size of the finished drinks. The judge pointed out the recipe calls for cold milk which expands when heated, and when coupled with the required foam, does in fact come out to the promised total.

The judge seemed to have ignored Handbook 133 of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which says you have to first dissipate the foam, and then you measure the quantity of liquid in the cup. Under the judge’s reasoning, some smart aleck coffee seller could half fill a cup with foam and possibly get away with it.

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  1. I think the judge had valid skepticism with the size of the cup. Because the volume of the cup is larger than the advertised volume of the drink, there is a reasonable amount of foam that can be on top of the liquid. However, if the liquid in the cup doesn’t amount to the advertised volume, there should be a problem.

    Consumers lose again

    Comment by Wayne — January 29, 2018 @ 8:47 am
  2. Betcha if this was beer we were talking about, Foam wouldn’t count!!!!

    Comment by Jbeezy — January 29, 2018 @ 10:32 am
  3. Oh, the horror. This doesn’t make the list of the top one million consumer complaints.

    Comment by Ard Diem — January 29, 2018 @ 10:58 am
  4. RE: Ard Diem

    Consumer complaints may not all have the same priority, but we should still address them as opportunities arise. A valid complaint is a valid complaint, big or small.

    Comment by Wayne — January 29, 2018 @ 11:25 am
  5. I think the root cause of this problem is that people are buying from Starbucks in the first place. You’re getting screwed on price the moment you set foot in the place. Don’t want to get overcharged? Don’t go there!

    Comment by Richard — January 29, 2018 @ 11:50 am
  6. Foam is an ingredient?

    Comment by Peter — January 29, 2018 @ 12:09 pm
  7. What Richard said!

    Comment by Gert — January 29, 2018 @ 2:45 pm
  8. Seems like it should have been a simple task to weigh a few empty cups to establish the average tare weight of a cup, then weigh a few cups as filled by Starbucks to see what the true weight of the contents was (liquid + foam). If Starbucks advertises 12/16/20 ounces and they’re providing on average 12/16/20 ounces (+/-), then there is no problem regardless of the ratio of liquid to foam. The problem here seems to stem from a confusion between volume and weight. The cup might be only 3/4 full but if it contains the advertised weight, there is no legal issue (though there might be a slack fill issue). The simpler solution for Starbucks is to drop the weight specification and simply label the sizes small, medium, and large – or tall, grande, and venti for those coffee drinkers who like a shot of pretentious with their latte.

    Edgar replies: John, I think you may be confusing dry measure with liquid measure. For beverages, it is fluid ounces that is measured, not the weight on a scale.

    Comment by john — January 29, 2018 @ 3:17 pm
  9. Thanks Edgar! I learned something today! I suppose this is a good argument for the metric system? 😉

    Edgar replies: John, the metric system makes the same distinction between liquid and solid measures — liters vs. kilos.

    Comment by john — January 29, 2018 @ 10:01 pm
  10. John, metric probably would be less ambiguous. 20 oz needs to be interpreted by context, is it measuring weight or volume? 0.6 liters is clearly referring to volume, while .6 kg is clearly mass (or weight on this planet). Maybe if we used the English unit of force/weight the slug instead of ounces we’d be better off. However, I’m not sure I’d want to order ~16 slugs of cheese (instead of 8oz/0.5lb).

    Comment by Derlin — January 30, 2018 @ 2:34 pm
  11. It sounds like the best avenue for the plaintiff would have been to follow the same line of reasoning that you followed in your summary Edgar. If the industry standard is that the foam should be dissipated before the volume is measured that should have been their initial argument.

    Comment by Joel — February 2, 2018 @ 6:42 pm
  12. Richard nailed it!

    Comment by Bill — February 4, 2018 @ 7:19 pm
  13. Actually there is a simple solution to this that I learned 20 years ago from watching Niles Crane on “Frasier” order his “low foam” latte. People snickered at his finicky nature, but I’ve been ordering my lattes that way ever since and have been enjoying a fuller cup as a result. Fortunately baristas don’t leave an empty space where the foam would have been and just continue to fill the cup to the brim, unlike bartenders who have been instructed to measure their drinks so that they won’t use more alcohol if they use a larger glass. So everyone can take advantage of this little known “latte loophole” and won’t need a lawsuit to achieve it!

    Comment by Renee — February 4, 2018 @ 11:54 pm

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