A California judge ruled that coffee companies in the Golden State must add warning labels to java. The cigarette-like warning about cancerous effects come as the result of a chemical generated during the roasting process, a claim that the roasters vigorously dispute.
The grind began back in 2010 when an obscure public interest group calling themselves the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed suit against 70 companies including Starbucks and Whole Foods. The complaint alleged that under the latest version of California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 a.k.a. Proposition 65, all coffee products must be labeled as carcinogenic.
The issue is a chemical compound called acrylamide. Acrylamide is often created in low levels when items such as starchy vegetables, bread, cereal are roasted or charred. CERT contends that coffee beans contain potentially dangerous levels of the substance and roasters must comply with Prop 65 which mandates warnings on ingestible linked to increased risk of cancer.
#SpoilerAlert The coffee companies think that CERT’s assertions are nonsense.
Lawyers for Starbucks initially argued that CERT’s arguments are bunk and that coffee poses zero risk to drinkers. That reasoning earned them a stay during phase one of the case in 2015.
However, the court eventually rejected it and arguments began again last year. At that point, the defense attorneys shifted tactics and began touting recent studies that posit coffee is actually good-for-you. However, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle didn’t buy the angle.
“While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation,” Berle wrote in his ruling. “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving … that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”
Industry advocates contend that coffee’s health benefits are real and that the lawsuit is motivated only by fiscal gains for the lawyers. “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health” said William (“Bill”) Murray, President & CEO, National Coffee Association in statement.
Although the dispute is specific to the California, the ramifications will likely be far larger. Given the massive size of the Golden State, it is unlikely that roaster will produce separate packaging for the area. Instead, one can expect the labeled bags to be distributed nationally. Environmentalists employed similar tactics to reduce national vehicle emissions by pushing legislation in Cali.
The defendants have two weeks to appeal the ruling, a move that they will certainly make.