How many samples are too many?

A London police officer samples wares offered by a local businessman. In Minnesota, a man was arrested and accused of shoplifting after taking a large number of samples from a grocery store. (Justin Tallis / AFP/Getty Images / June 11, 2013)

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We've all seen the serial samplers at Costco. They've made it quite the art, standing in line at each sample station, often still chewing or holding other samples. They have the concentration and determination of a brain surgeon trying to save a patient's life, unwilling to take his eyes off the aneurysm/freebie for more than a second.

But is what they are doing just annoying, or perhaps even illegal? And how do the rest of us know when we've taken too many?

One shopper was arrested at a Minnesota grocery store in 2010 after apparently taking too many.

He was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting after leaving the store with 14 to 16 packets of soy sauce, almost a pound of beef stick and half a pound of summer sausage, reported the Sporkful blog and podcast. The shopper insisted store employees had told him to take more samples home for his wife, but the employees denied the claim.

During a recent chat on Southern California Public Radio's "Take Two," Sporkful's Dan Pashman discussed that case and explained what he thought were the ground rules for samples. One sample to taste, two to confirm your findings and three if you really like what you're eating or you're extremely hungry.

You can also just use common sense. Most people know when they are being impolite. If you hear the person behind you loudly clearing his or her throat when you reach for a third sample, maybe it's time to let someone else have a bite. If people start giving you dirty looks, it's also time to get moving.

The Minnesota shopper, Erwin Lingitz, thought he had a right to all his samples, and he's now suing the owner of the grocery store. He is claiming his arrest violated his civil rights. The market owner is claiming Lingitz "violated societal norms." 

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