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California judge to decide whether or not coffee needs a cancer warning

A California judge will soon rule whether or not coffee must contain a label warning consumers it contains cancer-causing chemicals. (Image source: Getty Creative)

Should coffee have a warning label saying it contains carcinogens? A California judge will soon answer that question.

What’s going on?

According to WCMH-TV, a “long-running” lawsuit in California claims that coffee shops and grocery store chains have failed to follow a state law that requires them to post warning labels notifying customers of hazardous chemicals found around them. The three-decades old law is known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.

At the center of debate is the chemical acrylamide, which the World Health Organization has labeled cancer-causing.

Acrylamide, according to the Wall Street Journal, is used to make paper and dyes. However, it’s also a natural byproduct of the coffee-roasting process and is found in other baked, fried, or roasted foods, such as bread and french fries.

Lawyer Raphael Metzger, who is representing the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics, first sued Starbucks and Keurig Green Mountain in 2010, according to the Journal. He won the first phase of the case after a judge ruled the defendants failed to prove acrylamide doesn’t represent a “significant risk” to its consumers.

But a judgment is expected in the coming months after the coffee companies made their final defense arguments in court last fall. They say they should prevail because their products fall under an exception "for chemicals that result naturally from cooking necessary for palatability or to avoid microbiological contamination,” according to WCMH.

Fortunately for the defendants, they have the former head of the Food and Drug Administration on their side.

David Kessler, the former head of the FDA, testified in-favor of the defendants last fall arguing the potential side-effects of acrylamide are far out-weighed by coffee’s benefits. He also said irresponsibly labeling coffee as cancer-causing might drive people to get caffeine from worse sources, like soda.

What did the defendants say?

Starbucks has declined to comment pending the outcome of the case.

But an attorney representing the defendants, James Schurz, said in court it’s “hard to imagine” that coffee doesn’t fall under the law’s exceptions.

"It is hard to imagine a product that could satisfy this exemption if coffee does not,” he said. “The answer to the question of whether Proposition 65 requires coffee to carry a cancer warning must be an emphatic ‘No.’"

What are the potential penalties?

According to WCHM, if the judge rules against the coffee company, they could be liable for a massive fine. Under the law, civil penalties include a $2,500 per person, per day penalty. For California, a state with nearly 40 million people, the penalty could theoretically be in the billions, though a penalty that large is unlikely.

Why do the cancer warnings exist?

Allan Hirsch, chief deputy of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, told WCHM: "The intent is not to scare people,” Hirsch said. “The intention is to help people make more informed decisions. If you continue to buy a product that will expose you to a chemical, that’s OK as long as you’re informed."

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