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Is a Hamburger Legally a Steak?

Back in 2017, several consumers sued Dunkin’ Donuts in a class action lawsuit alleging that the company’s Angus Steak and Egg sandwich really contained a ground beef patty rather than a solid piece of steak.

Dunkin' Steak & Egg

In commercials for the product, Dunkin’ repeatedly referred to the sandwich as containing “steak.”

*MOUSE PRINT:

None — they did not make any type of disclosure that it really was a ground beef patty.

The consumers in the case argued that this was a misrepresentation, they didn’t get what they paid for, and they would have paid less had they known they were going to be served a chopped meat sandwich rather than a solid piece of Angus steak.

The lower court dismissed the suit, and the appeals court agreed in a March 2020 decision. That court quoted the definition of steak from the dictionary, in part saying:

Moreover, while the word “steak” can refer to “a slice of meat,” it is also defined as “ground beef prepared for cooking or for serving in the manner of a steak.” Classic examples of ground beef served as “steak” include chopped steak, hamburger steak, and Salisbury steak.

The court concluded that no reasonable consumer would expect to be served a piece of solid steak for the $2-$4 price that Dunkin’ was charging:

As the television advertisements themselves demonstrate, the Products are marketed as grab-and-go products that can be consumed in hand, without the need for a fork and knife. A reasonable consumer purchasing one of the Products from Dunkin Donuts in that context would not be misled into thinking she was purchasing an “unadulterated piece of meat.”

MrConsumer has to disagree. If he walked into a sub shop and ordered a steak and peppers sub, he would expect to get solid pieces of meat, or at a minimum shaved slices of beef, but not hamburger meat. Dunkin’ had to know that by calling their product a steak sandwich, some number of customers — maybe even the majority — might reasonably believe they would be getting a solid meat sandwich.

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15 thoughts on “Is a Hamburger Legally a Steak?”

  1. I have to agree with courts. Have people become so helpless that they can’t even ask the clerk if it’s really a solid piece of meat or a chopped steak? Moreover, the next remedy is just don’t order it again. Then post a scathing revue on Facebook and call it a day.

  2. I think at the 2-4 buck price I would be surprised if they even used so called Angus meat.

    They probably substituted in some choice select beef.

  3. Knowing that the public differentiates between a hamburger and a steak sandwich, I have to agree that Dunkin’ Donuts is is being intentionally deceptive. Additionally, “Angus steak” brings with it a certain expectation of quality, but their “steak” sandwich is of such low quality that it’s a complete letdown all around. As they say, fool me once….

  4. I think we should investigate if “mouse print” is really printed by a mouse. How can it be labeled as “Mose print” if no mouse is involved in the production process?

    Shameful??

  5. MrConsumer, I have to disagree with you on this one. As previously mentioned, what happened to just asking what form the beef is? As for ordering a steak and pepper sub ( my favorite), said sub shop will almost always offer a hamburger sub on the same menu, delineating the 2 types of beef offered.

  6. I would argue that the court is simply wrong on this one.

    At most restaurants and at supermarkets, if the product being sold is composed of ground beef–even if that beef is derived from a cut of steak–the description of steak should be (and usually is) properly qualified as “ground steak” or “hamburger steak” or “Salisbury steak”. Similarly, a grilled filet of tuna is labelled “tuna steak”.

    The consumer would rightly object if s/he bought a package labelled frozen beef steaks only to find hamburgers inside unless the package qualified the contents. For example, the product Steak-umm sliced steak is indeed properly qualified on the front label as “chopped” and “shaped”.

    This is implicit in federal labelling laws which clearly distinguish between ground or chopped meat products and whole muscle products. In CFR-2012, there is a section on what is technically called “fabricated steak” that specifies appropriate labellings, such as “beef steak, chopped”.

    One might also ask why Dunkin’ Donuts chose to label the sandwich “Angus Steak ‘n’ Egg” instead of “Angus Burger ‘n’ Egg”. It is reasonable to assume that this was done recognizing the consumer’s expectation that steak is a more desirable ingredient than ground meat. This suggests to me an intent to obscure the real beef ingredient.

    I also think it is fallacious to suggest that it is up to the consumer to question the identity of product ingredients before buying the product. Do I need to ask McDonald’s whether their cheeseburger is made with real cheese as opposed to “cheese product”? No, because McDonald’s knows it should use real cheese (and does).

    (Note: I am not a lawyer. This is my interpretation of the federal register as well as what I perceive to be common consumer expectations. I am also not connected in any way to the class action suit mentioned in the story.)

  7. I see the term “steak” as a description of form. Beef steak, pork steak, venison steak, etc., are descriptions of, well, how the cut looks. Similarly, “ground” whatever describes a different form of that particular meat. They also show the meat at an angle quite differently than they do the eggs, and in a rather quick view, so I think they are trying to make it difficult for the consumer to actually see enough to make a decision as to what the cut is. All things considered, for me Dunkin’ is being deceptive.

  8. If we can’t have clear differentiation between steak and hamburger, can we really say that we live in a civilized society?

  9. JonK and Wayne, great comments! I see “steak” and I anticipate one piece of meat. Now, someone needs to define the “French Dip,” which I always assumed is sliced beef on a roll. I got one the other day from Arby’s that must have contained remnants and shreds of beef cleaned out of the slicer and wiped up off the counter as there was no actual slice of beef in it, just shards of meat. Try dipping that one!

  10. I agree with the courts. They must weary at the inane battles of our litigious culture. The poor of the world would rightly weep at our excesses.

  11. Just one more comment to those who think the courts were wrong…it’s not Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse we’re talking about folks. It’s Dunkin Donuts. Enough said.

  12. What does it say about our current society when courts come up with ridiculous decisions like this? At $4.00 you bet I’d expect it to be a real solid piece of steak! If The Outback Steakhouse can afford to sell you an entire 6 oz. steak meal for $13.99 that dinky little sandwich is extremely overpriced!

    Plus yes to supermarkets never being able to get away with selling ground beef and labeling it “steak”. So where’s the consistency and logic here?

    They should have at least called it “chopped steak”.

    I’m old enough to remember “Salisbury steak”. We all knew it was a piece of chopped seasoned beef but the fact that it had a proper name made us think it got excused from being factually descriptive of what it really was.

  13. I long for the day when Dunkin Donuts sold nothing but donuts and only donuts made in front of you and served with a hot brew of ground fresh kona coffee. Sigh!

  14. Seems everyone is chiming in with their own opinion so here is my thoughts.

    I believe the real culprit in this case is the definition of a term not keeping up with common every day usage. While I personally wouldn’t care or expect an actual piece of steak of a ~$3 sandwich, I know some people might. I think the word steak deservers a more cleanly defined meaning. Something akin to “A single slice of meat from such and such part of a cow.” I’m not an expert on the legalese for it, but you get my point.

    I will say in closure, that I’m not sure this is something that needed to go to the courts over. If steak and hamburger where different species of animal I think it would matter more, but the better thing to do in this situation I think is to either:
    A) Just not ever buy one again. (The answer I normally go with.)
    or
    B) Ask Dunkin Donuts for a refund and then never buy it again.

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