Coffee might come with a cancer warning in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California coffee shops soon might be forced to warn customers about a possible cancer risk linked to their morning jolt of java.

The state keeps a list of chemicals it considers possible causes of cancer, and one of them, acrylamide, is created when coffee beans are roasted.

A lawsuit first filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in 2010 by the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics targets several companies that make or sell coffee, including Starbucks, 7-Eleven and BP.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants “failed to provide clear and reasonable warning” that drinking coffee could expose people to acrylamide.

The court documents state that, under the California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65, businesses must give customers a “clear and reasonable warning” about the presence of agents that affect health — and that these stores failed to do so.

In addition to paying fines, the lawsuit wants companies to post warnings about acrylamide with an explanation about the potential risks of drinking coffee.

If the lawsuit is successful, the signs would need to be clearly posted at store counters or on walls where someone could easily see them when making a purchase.

Raphael Metzger, the attorney representing the nonprofit, said it really wants the coffee companies to reduce the amount of the chemical to the point where there would be no significant cancer risk.

“I’m addicted to coffee, I confess, and I would like to be able to have mine without acrylamide,” Metzger said.

At a bench trial in the fall, the coffee companies argued the level of acrylamide in coffee should be considered safe under the law and that the health benefits of coffee essentially outweigh the risk.

At least 13 of the defendants have settled and agreed to give a warning, most recently 7-Eleven, according to Metzger. The convenience store chain did not respond to requests for comment.

The other manufacturers would have to follow suit if they don’t settle the lawsuit and if the judge finds that they violated state laws.

Metzger said private mediation with the remaining retailers is set for Feb. 8. It will include nine of the defendants, and the parties will try to come to an agreement about the case. Otherwise, a judge would probably reach a decision this year.

BP did not return requests for comment.

Starbucks referred questions to the National Coffee Association, the industry’s trade association, which said it was not in a position to comment on the litigation.

Bill Murray, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement, “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. The U.S. government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. This lawsuit simply confuses consumers, and has the potential to make a mockery of Prop 65 cancer warning at a time when the public needs clear and accurate information about health.”

 

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