California Judge Rules Coffee Must Carry Cancer Warning Label

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California Judge Rules Coffee Must Carry Cancer Warning Label

04/02/2018
to-go coffee cups
A Los Angeles judge has determined that coffee companies must carry an ominous cancer warning label because of a chemical produced in the roasting process.

LOS ANGELES — Californians' daily coffee orders may now not only come with a "hot" warning label, but with a side of a cancer warning.

A Los Angeles judge determined that coffee companies must carry an ominous cancer warning label because of a chemical produced in the roasting process, The AP reported.

On March 28, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said that Starbucks and other companies failed to show that benefits from drinking coffee outweighed any risks. He ruled in an earlier phase of trial that companies hadn’t shown the threat from the chemical was insignificant.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a nonprofit group, sued Starbucks and 90 other companies under a state law that requires warnings on a wide range of chemicals that can cause cancer. One is acrylamide, a carcinogen present in coffee.

"Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving ... that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health," Berle wrote in his proposed ruling.

According to the news source, the coffee industry claimed the chemical was present at harmless levels and should be exempt from the law because it results naturally from the cooking process that makes beans flavorful. It also argued coffee was good for the body.

The ruling came despite eased concerns in recent years about the possible dangers of coffee, with some studies finding health benefits. In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer — the cancer agency of the World Health Organization — moved coffee off its "possible carcinogen" list.

The lawsuit was brought under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, passed by voters in 1986. It allows private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties. The law has been credited with reducing chemicals that cause cancer and birth defects, such as lead in hair dyes, mercury in nasal sprays and arsenic in bottled water; however, it’s also been widely criticized for abuses by lawyers shaking down businesses for quick settlements, AP reported.

"Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage," said William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, adding that the lawsuit "does nothing to improve public health."

The lawsuit began brewing eight years ago and will enter a third phase of trial that will determine civil penalties of up to $2,500 per person exposed each day over eight years. The potential figure could reach 40 million, but would unlikely be imposed, according to AP.

According to attorney Raphael Metzger, who represents the lawsuit, argued that the industry should remove the chemical from its process, even though coffee companies have said it’s not feasible.

"Getting it out is better for public health than leaving it in and warning people," he said.

Metzger’s client brought a similar case later taken up by the state attorney general that resulted in potato-chip makers agreeing in 2008 to pay $3 million and remove acrylamide from their products. The chip-makers opted to do that rather than post cancer warnings like those that are found throughout California.

Many coffee companies have already posted warnings saying acrylamide is found in coffee; however, many are posted in places not easily visible like below counters where cream and sugar are available. Berle has given the defense a couple weeks to file objections to the proposed ruling before he makes it final. California judges can reverse their tentative rulings, but rarely do, according to the news outlet.

About a dozen of the defendants in the case have previously settled and agreed to post warnings, Metzger said. With some defendants dismissed or affiliated with larger companies, about 50 defendants remain.

Among the latest to settle was 7-Eleven Inc., which agreed to pay $900,000. BP West Coast Products, which operates gas station convenience stores, agreed to pay $675,000.