In a blow to Starbucks and other coffee retailers, a judge ruled that coffee in the state of California must carry a cancer warning. In the ruling made last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge found that the 91 defendant retailers, including Starbucks, had failed to prove that a chemical found in coffee posed no significant threat.
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2010 by a nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics. The organization claimed that the presence of acrylamide, which is created during the roasting process, is carcinogenic and requires a warning under a California law. Acrylamide is also used for industrial processes, such as making paper and dyes. It is also created during the cooking process for numerous baked and fried foods, many of which are required to carry cancer warnings. Due to similar litigation, some potato chip companies found alternate processes for cooking their products.
The plaintiff brought the lawsuit under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (“Proposition 65”), which requires warning labels for an approximate 900 chemicals known to cause cancer or birth defects. It allows private citizens, advocacy groups, and attorneys to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties for failure to provide warnings. It has been credited with selecting cancer-causing chemicals from numerous products.
The Wall Street Journal quotes the president and chief executive of the National Coffee Association as stating that “[c]ancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading,” and that the lawsuit “…does nothing to improve public health.” In a statement issued after the proposed ruling, the Association said that it would consider appeals and additional legal actions. The defendants have a few weeks to challenge the ruling before it is final and they could seek relief from an appellate court.
The ruling against coffee retailers came as a surprise, as recent years have eased concerns about the possible dangers of coffee — some studies have even found health benefits from drinking the beverage. In fact, according to USA Today, the International Agency for Research on Cancer removed coffee from its “possible carcinogen” list in 2016.
Some coffee shops around the state of California have already posted warnings stating that acrylamide is a cancer-causing chemical found in coffee. Such signs should be posted at the point of sale, or at an easily viewable location; however, many are displayed in places that are not easily visible, such as below the counter.
If this ruling stands, defendants could face extensive financial penalties, and the repercussions could travel across state lines. The judge could set another phase of the trial to consider potential civil penalties, which could reach a maximum of $2,500 per person exposed each day over eight years. In a state the size of California, that type of penalty could be astronomical, although it is unlikely.
It is likely that consumers in other states could see the cancer warnings, as large, interstate companies such as Starbucks and Dunkin would not likely seek special manufacturing for California-only packaging.