California Judge Wants Coffee to Carry Cancer Warnings

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Coffee giant Starbucks and other coffee retailers received an eye opener on Wednesday after a Los Angeles Superior Court judge told them to post cancer warnings for coffee sold in California.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle released a decision finding that several coffee companies did not sufficiently argue that their products had insignificant levels of a carcinogen found in coffee.

The nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed the lawsuit in 2010 against several coffee companies and retailers, claiming they violated state law by failing to provide warnings to consumers that their coffee contained high levels of acrylamide, a byproduct that is released when coffee beans are roasted.

Acrylamide is a carcinogen found in cooked starchy foods like potato chips, French fries and some forms of bread, according to CERT’s lawsuit.

Defendants in the case claimed the amounts found in ready-to-serve coffee posed “no significant risk,” according to court documents.

But Berle did not buy their arguments.

“Defendants did not offer substantial evidence to quantify any minimum amount of acrylamide in coffee that might be necessary to reduce microbiological contamination or render coffee palatable,” Berle wrote in his 22-page ruling. “Rather, Defendants argued that acrylamide levels in coffee cannot be reduced at all without negatively affecting safety and palatability.”

The Washington-state based Starbucks was not alone in defending its cup of joe.

In 2011, CERT filed a second lawsuit naming 46 defendants for similar violations of state law.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the J.M. Smucker Company, Kraft Food Global, and Starbucks participated in the first phase of the trial.

Long Beach, California-based law firm Metzer Law Group represented CERT, which argued the coffee retailers were in violation of California’s Proposition 65 under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which allows lawsuits on behalf of the state against offenders.

Acrylamide has been recognized in California as a carcinogen since 1990.

According to court documents, defendants did not dispute that acrylamide was a byproduct of the roasting process, but Judge Berle concluded they failed to meet their burden of proof that acrylamide was at “no significant risk level.”

The court also found defendants’ argument on First Amendment and federal preemption grounds to avoid posting cancer hazard warning labels was lacking.

Proposition 65 allows an express exemption from liability for naturally occurring chemicals found in food, but those exemptions do not apply to carcinogens that form during the cooking process. The fact that defendants did not add the carcinogen was not enough of a defense, according to the court.

Defendants’ experts provided risk assessments of the carcinogen, but they did not consider what effect it has when found in coffee.

And a report from a laboratory on acrylamide provided evidence that was “unreliable and inadmissible because the analytical chemistry method” was novel and used techniques that were not accepted in the scientific community, according to the court.

Starbucks referred to a statement from the National Coffee Association on the decision. The coffee industry is weighing all its legal options, according to a statement released after Judge Berle’s decision.

The National Coffee Association says cancer warnings would be misleading for consumers and maintains that coffee drinkers live healthy lives. It adds the World Health Organization has not recognized that coffee causes cancer, according to the statement.

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