Business

Consumer Alert

Dunkin’ Donuts on slippery slope with its ‘butter’

When is butter not butter?

When you order a buttered bagel at a Dunkin’ Donuts restaurant.

Craig Polewaczyk of Worcester was recently disappointed after taking a bite of a bagel ordered with butter. He complained that it didn’t taste like butter and was told he was right. Even though 1) he asked for butter and 2) his receipt said “butter,” the bagel was schmeared with margarine. No apology or refund followed. So, he asked me whether the chain was deceiving its customers, and I asked Dunkin’ Donuts.

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Dunkin’ acknowledged its use of a “butter-substitute vegetable spread” when butter is ordered, with the caveat that some franchisees might differ in their offerings.

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“For food safety reasons, we do not allow butter to be stored at room temperature, which is the temperature necessary for butter to be easily spread onto a bagel or pastry,” said Dunkin’ spokeswoman Lindsay Harrington. “As a result, the recommended in-store procedure . . . is that individual whipped butter packets be served on the side of a guest’s bagel or pastry but not applied. The vegetable spread is generally used if the employee applies the topping.”

That decision, and the chain’s lack of disclosure, is not fair to consumers, said Barbara Anthony, who leads the state Division of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

“You really do need to be candid with the consumer with what you’re doing,” she said. “The seller knows the difference, but the consumer doesn’t. That’s why this is an unfair practice and a misrepresentation — the consumer is in the dark.”

It’s quite possible, Anthony said, that if a customer is told they are getting margarine, they will be fine with it. But what if they’re not? What if they have a health issue? Or would they opt to spread butter packets if they knew that was an option?

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Regardless, she said, the chain is on a slippery slope with its supposedly buttery bagel. “Butter” is not a generic term, it’s a dairy product. And while Dunkin’ can certainly serve “vegetable spread,” the chain has to be honest about it.

“The company,” said Anthony, “really does need to revisit its policy and tell people what it is.”

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers for two decades. He also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. He can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter@mitchlipka.