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A judge has ruled that the state of California may require cancer warnings on coffee products, indicating the burden of proof was on manufacturers and sellers to establish that coffee is harmless and carries a health benefit.
The ruling (PDF) was announced last week by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle, following a complaint filed in 2008, by the Council for Education and Research on Toxins, a non-profit consumer watchdog group. The lawsuit called for cafes, coffee houses and manufacturers in the state to remove a potentially toxic chemical from the brewing process or warn that coffee may carry a risk of cancer.
The risk comes from a chemical called acrylamide, which is created when coffee beans are roasted. It is on a list of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity, known as the Prop 65 list. The Council previously convinced potato chip makers to remove the chemical from their manufacturing process, and sought to do the same with coffee.
Despite a number of studies published in the last few years indicating that drinking coffee carries some health benefits, and studies indicating there is virtually no cancer risk, Judge Berle indicated that Starbucks and other defendants failed to present sufficient evidence to establish that their products were without cancer risks or carried health benefits.
Judge Berle said that experts for the defendants failed to do the type of quantitative risk assessment necessary to examine the risk of cancer from acrylamide in coffee. He also said some rationales they used “lack scientific support, are not based on sound considerations of public health,” and were inadequate for some of their conclusions.
“Although evidence showed that roasting coffee beans is necessary to make coffee palatable and roasting coffee beans reduces microbiological contamination in coffee, Defendants’ proffered evidence that coffee itself confers some benefit to human health was not persuasive and was refuted by Plaintiffs’ evidence,” Judge Berle determined. “Since Defendants failed to prove that coffee confers any human health benefits, Defendants have failed to satisfy their burden of proving that sound considerations of public health support an alternate risk level for acrylamide in coffee.”
Jude Berle has given coffee companies several weeks to file objections before finalizing the ruling. Following the ruling’s finalization, defendants could face civil penalties of up to $2,500 per person per day who has been exposed over the last eight years. 7-Eleven has already settled out of court for $900,000.
California Prop 65 List
California’s Prop 65 list has been in the public eye nationwide for the last year, after it defeated Monsanto in court and was allowed to add glyphosate, the active ingredient in the popular weed killer Roundup, to the list.
In the case of Roundup, California followed the lead of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which found that glyphosate exposure increased the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2015. However, in 2016, the IARC determined that there was no conclusive evidence that drinking coffee increased the risk of cancer.
Across the U.S., several hundred product liability lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto by farmers, landscapers, agricultural workers and others regularly exposed to Roundup, alleging that they may have avoided a diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma or other cancer if warnings had been provided by Monsanto.
Since October 2016, all federal Roundup lawsuits have been consolidated for pretrial proceedings as part of an MDL, or multidistrict litigation, which is centralized before U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in the Northern District of California.