Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Los Angeles, CA, United States (4E) – Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle has ruled — surprisingly — that coffee must carry a cancer warning label because a chemical called “acrylamide” produced in the roasting process might be a carcinogen. This means coffee companies across the state will have to add cancer-warning labels to all their coffee products.
In siding with the plaintiffs, the mysterious Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), Berle said that Starbucks and other coffee firms failed to show that benefits from drinking coffee outweighed any risks. He earlier ruled that coffee companies hadn’t shown the threat from the chemical was insignificant.
The lawsuit was brought under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act adopted in 1986. The law allows private citizens, advocacy groups and lawyers to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties.
The little known non-profit group based in California known as CERT (founded in 2003) sued Starbucks and 90 other companies under this law that also requires warnings on a wide range of chemicals that can cause cancer. One of these carcinogens is acrylamide, which is present in coffee.
Acrylamide is a chemical primarily used to make substances called polyacrylamide and acrylamide copolymers. These compounds are used in many industrial processes such as the production of paper and plastics. Food and cigarette smoke are the major sources of acrylamide exposure among the general population. The major food sources of acrylamide are French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; prune juice — and coffee.
Scientists said studies in rodent models found that acrylamide exposure increases the risk for several types of cancer. On the other hand, a large number of epidemiologic studies (both case-control and cohort studies) in humans have found no consistent evidence that dietary acrylamide exposure is associated with the risk of any type of cancer.
The coffee industry had claimed acrylamide is 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 is good for the body.
“Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving … that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health,” wrote Berle in his proposed ruling.
The ruling came despite eased concerns in recent years about the possible dangers of coffee, with some studies finding health benefits. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016.
“Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” said William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, in reaction to the decision. He argued the lawsuit “does nothing to improve public health.”
The lawsuit has been in litigation for eight years. A third phase of trial will determine civil penalties of up to $2,500 per person exposed each day over eight years, an astronomical figure in a state of 40 million that appears unlikely to be imposed.
Raphael Metzger, the lawyer for CERT who brought the lawsuit and drinks a few cups of coffee daily, wants the industry to remove acrylamide from its process. Coffee companies said that’s not feasible.
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