California judge rules coffee requires cancer warning

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Coffee sellers in California should have to post warnings because the brew may contain an ingredient linked to cancer, a judge has ruled.

The culprit is a chemical produced in the bean roasting process that is a known carcinogen and has been at the heart of an eight-year legal struggle between a tiny nonprofit group and Big Coffee.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics wanted the coffee industry to remove acrylamide from its processing — like potato chip makers did when it sued them years ago — or disclose the danger in ominous warning signs or labels.

The industry, led by Starbucks, said the level of the chemical in coffee is not harmful and any risks are outweighed by benefits.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said the coffee makers had not presented the proper grounds at trial to prevail.

In his proposed ruling, he wrote: “While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation.

“Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving… that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”

The suit was brought against Starbucks and 90 companies under a law passed by California voters in 1986 that has been credited with culling cancer-causing chemicals from myriad products and also criticised for leading to quick settlement shakedowns.

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, better known as Proposition 65, requires warning labels for about 900 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. It allows private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties for failure to provide warnings.

The suit was brought against Starbucks and 90 companies (Nick Ansell/PA)
The suit was brought against Starbucks and 90 companies (Nick Ansell/PA)

Scientific evidence on coffee has gone back and forth for a long time, but concerns have eased recently about possible dangers of coffee, with some studies finding health benefits.

In 2016, the cancer agency of the World Health Organisation moved coffee off its “possible carcinogen” list.

Studies indicate coffee is unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer, and it seems to lower the risks for liver and uterine cancers, the agency said. Evidence is inadequate to determine its effect on dozens of other cancer types.

Coffee companies have said it is not feasible to remove acrylamide from their product without ruining the flavour.

But attorney Raphael Metzger, who brought the lawsuit and drinks a few cups of coffee a day, said the industry could remove the chemical without impairing taste.

“I firmly believe if the potato chip industry can do it, so can the coffee industry,” he said.

“A warning won’t be that effective because it’s an addictive product.”

Many coffee shops have already posted warnings that say acrylamide is cancer-causing chemical found in coffee.

However signs supposed to be posted at the point of sale are often found in places not easily visible, such as below the counter where cream and sugar are available.

Customers at shops posting warnings are often unaware or unconcerned about them.

Afternoon coffee drinkers at a Los Angeles Starbucks said they might look into the warning or give coffee drinking a second thought after the ruling, but the cup of joe was likely to win out.

“I just don’t think it would stop me,” said Jen Bitterman, a digital marketing technologist. “I love the taste, I love the ritual, I love the high, the energy, and I think I’m addicted to it.”

Darlington Ibekwe poses for a photo in front of a coffee shop in Los Angeles (Amanda Lee Myers/AP)
Darlington Ibekwe poses for a photo in front of a coffee shop in Los Angeles (Amanda Lee Myers/AP)

“It’s like cigarettes. Like, damn, now I’ve got to see this?” he said. “Dude, I’m enjoying my coffee.”

The defendants have a couple weeks to challenge the ruling before it is final and could seek relief from an appellate court.

If the ruling stands, it could come with a stiff financial penalty and could rattle consumers beyond state lines.

The judge can set another phase of trial to consider potential civil penalties up to 2,500 US dollars per person exposed each day over eight years.

That could be an astronomical sum in a state with close to 40 million residents, though such a massive fine is unlikely.

California’s outsized market could make it difficult to tailor packaging with warning labels specifically to stores in the state.

That means out-of-state coffee drinkers could also take their coffee with a cancer warning. Cream and sugar would still be optional.

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