California Coffee Shops Must Display Cancer Warnings, Judge Rules

Published April 27, 2018

Stores and restaurants in California must warn customers of cancer risks coffee poses, a state Superior Court judge ruled.

State Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle issued the March 30 decision in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), an organization dedicated to “furthering scientific understanding of toxins.”

Represented by California attorney Raphael Metzger, CERT sued Starbucks and several other companies, arguing coffee roasting produce acrylamide, a chemical by-product about which California regulations require businesses to display warning labels in prominent places.

In 1986, California voters approved the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, known as Proposition 65. Proposition 65 requires businesses operating in the state to notify customers of products that contain potentially carcinogenic or toxic chemicals.

Judge Berle held a follow-up hearing on April 27 to consider the defendants’ objections to Berle’s ruling.

Calls Ruling ‘Ridiculous’

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the Consumer Choice Center and a policy advisor for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Health Care News, says the Starbucks decision is an unnecessary government interference.

 “There is zero evidence that Proposition 65 is promoting public health,” Stier said. “Certainly people can make their own decisions about whether to drink coffee, but the suggestion that any consumption of acrylamide by drinking coffee could lead to cancer is ridiculous.”

‘No Evidence’ of Cancer Risk

Charles Dinerstein, M.D., a senior medical fellow at the American Council on Science and Health, says the lawsuit demonstrates the gap between science and government decision-making.

“There’s no evidence that acrylamide will cause cancer in the quantities that people are drinking in a cup of coffee,” Dinerstein said. “Acrylamide develops when you roast the coffee, so it’s a product of making the foodstuff palatable, which is the reason the companies thought it was not going to be a problem. Science is no longer in here at all. It’s all about law now.”

‘A Transfer of Wealth’

Stier says government regulations often translate into big paydays for attorneys.

“Proposition 65 should be repealed,” Stier said. “There is a long history of it causing problems. If the government doesn’t do its job of enforcement, private individuals can sue the manufacturer or store owner, and it becomes a transfer of wealth to a bunch of plaintiffs who are just seeking to game the system. There have been lots of abuses of Proposition 65, and this is only the latest and most high-profile.”

Dinerstein says the ruling isn’t about protecting people’s health.

“It’s going to do nothing for consumers,” Dinerstein said. “It’s one of the vagaries of Proposition 65: in California, there are going to be signs put up in all these stores, and they will be routinely ignored.”