Federal Judge Orders Pause of California Lawsuits Over Cancer Warning Labels

Citing contradicting scientific evidence concerning the danger of the chemical acrylamide found commonly in junk food, the judge ordered a pause of new lawsuits against food companies that claim the warning labels mislead consumers and violate the First Amendment.

In this Sept. 22, 2017 file photo, a barista pours steamed milk in a coffee at a cafe in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Business groups fighting California over required cancer warning labels on products containing a chemical commonly found in coffee and junk food notched a legal victory Tuesday, as a judge temporarily barred enforcement of the state law.

Citing shaky scientific proof regarding the danger of eating foods containing acrylamide, U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller granted the California Chamber of Commerce’s motion for preliminary injunction. Mueller prevented the state or private parties from suing companies for not putting Proposition 65 warning labels solely on food and beverages containing the toxic chemical as the case continues in federal court.

“The state has not shown that the cancer warnings it requires are purely factual and uncontroversial,” Mueller said. “Nor has it shown that Proposition 65 imposes no undue burden on those who would provide a more carefully worded warning.”

Mueller’s findings fall in line with arguments coffee roasters and food producers have been making for decades when it comes to the common chemical’s danger to humans.

Acrylamide is used to treat drinking water and for making plastic and cosmetic products, but it also is sometimes found naturally in food.

While not common in meat, fish and dairy products, acrylamide is often found in baked or fried goods like french fries, potato chips, donuts and some tobacco products. In addition, the chemical has been identified in healthier products such as coffee, almonds and black olives.

Studies have shown rats fed water and food containing acrylamide were more likely to develop cancerous tumors all over their bodies, but so far epidemiologists have not reached a consensus when it comes to humans. Meanwhile, the National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens lists acrylamide as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The battle between food manufacturers and California dates back to the early 1990s when the state decided to require cancer warning labels on products containing acrylamide. An early rush of lawsuits brought by groups like the Council for Education and Research on Toxics resulted in hefty judgments and legal fees against companies producing items like french fries and chips. For a stretch, the state wanted warning labels on coffee but it has since backed off in light of new scientific research and underlying litigation.

The case at hand was filed by the Chamber in 2019 and it casts acrylamide warning labels for food products as free speech violations. It claims the science is far-from settled and that warning labels are inherently misleading to consumers.

As it stands, Mueller appears to agree with the plaintiff.

In her ruling, the Barack Obama appointee noted state regulators have rejected requests from food makers for alternative, clearer listings that could prevent lawsuits. According to court documents, at least 40 new Proposition 65 lawsuits pertaining to acrylamide in food were recently filed in state courts, along with nearly 400 pre-litigation letters.

At this early stage, Mueller says it’s likely the chamber would succeed with its First Amendment fight.  

“If a business decides not to use the safe harbor warning, it risks expensive and lengthy litigation against private enforcers or the state, and defendants carry heavy evidentiary burdens if they attempt to show their products contain permissibly small quantities of acrylamide,” Mueller’s order states.

The preliminary injunction only applies to new acrylamide lawsuits and Mueller was clear her order has no impact on the multi-layered Proposition 65 as a whole or preexisting acrylamide agreements. In addition, she denied the Council for Education and Research on Toxics’ motion for summary judgment.

The chamber celebrated the decision and the resulting pause on new lawsuits, while the state attorney general’s office said it was “reviewing the decision.”

“We are on the side of common sense,” said President and CEO Allan Zaremberg in a statement. “This lawsuit is about reducing unnecessary fear for consumers and litigation threats for businesses.”

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