California Judge Rules Coffee Must Carry Cancer Warning

Coffee in the state of California must carry a cancer warning, a judge here ruled, in a blow to Starbucks and other retailers which had argued that a state law meant to protect consumers shouldn’t apply to them. The proposed ruling Wednesday from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle found that Starbucks and other companies failed to prove their case that a chemical found in coffee posed no significant harm.

A nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics sued coffee sellers in 2010, claiming the presence of acrylamide, a chemical created during the roasting process, is carcinogenic and requires a warning under the state law known as Proposition 65. After losing an earlier phase of the case, the companies argued at a trial last fall that they should be allowed to come up with an alternative risk level for acrylamide in coffee. Judge Berle said in the ruling the companies “did not offer substantial evidence to quantify any minimum amount of acrylamide in coffee that might be necessary to reduce microbial contamination or render coffee palatable.” He also found the defendants’ arguments that coffee itself has some health benefit “was not persuasive.”

A Starbucks spokeswoman referred a request for comment to the National Coffee Association, which said the coffee industry is considering potential appeals or further legal options. “Cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading,” the association’s president and chief executive, William Murray, said. “This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health.” Under Proposition 65, cancer warnings already appear in places as far-ranging as apartment-building lobbies, parking garages and restaurants. Businesses must warn about the presence of any of more than 900 chemicals on a list of those known to the state of California to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.

Acrylamide, used for industrial processes like making paper and dyes, is also created during the cooking process for many baked and fried foods, including potato chips, bread and french fries. Many of those products also contain the cancer warnings as a result of litigation. Judge Berle still has to issue a final ruling, which usually mirrors a proposed ruling, as well as a rule on penalties the companies could face. Credit: Sara Randazzo for The Wall Street Journal, 29 March 2018.

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