California Requires Warning Labels on Coffee

Judge rules in favor of an advocacy group seeking to warn consumers of carcinogens

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- All coffee retailers in California will be required to post a warning about the beverage’s potential health risks after a judge ruled March 29 that the danger is not offset by the morning jolt’s benefits. Some retailers like 7-Eleven and BP West Coast Products LLC had already dropped out of the lawsuit before the ruling, agreeing to post signage and pay fines.

The justice, California Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle, had earlier ruled that the risk of ingesting a carcinogen in a cup of java is not insignificant. He has been presiding over an eight-year lawsuit brought by an advocacy group, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, under a state law passed by referendum in 1986. The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act aims to cut Californians’ inadvertent exposure to cancer-causing agents by requiring warnings on products that may contain a carcinogen.

The nonprofit group alleged in its lawsuit that the coffee roasting process created minute amounts of acrylamide, a known carcinogen. Starbucks and other defendants argued that the health benefits of drinking coffee outweigh the slight risk. But Berle ruled the point wasn’t proven in court. "Defendants failed to satisfy their burden,” he said.

The trial will now move into a third stage to consider if Starbucks and the other defendants will be required to pay civil penalties for exposing the public to a health risk. The 1986 law calls for violators to compensate each person put in danger at the rate of $2,500 per exposure, which could run into the quadrillions of dollars.

Few expect Berle to impose penalties that steep. In an earlier lawsuit brought by the center against potato-chip manufacturers, the defendants agreed to pay $3 million.

A number of defendants in the original coffee lawsuit have already settled with the nonprofit group. In December, 7-Eleven agreed to pay $900,000 to resolve the matter. When BP West Coast Products LLC dropped out of the case, the retailer paid $675,000 to settle the dispute. The center has said what it really wants is a change in the way coffee is roasted, but defendants in the trial have maintained that’s not possible. 

The terms of the lawsuit require retailers to post signs at the point of sale reading, “Chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity, including acrylamide, are present in coffee, baked goods and other food or beverages sold here. Acrylamide is not added to our products, but results from cooking, such as when coffee beans are roasted or baked goods are baked. As a result, acrylamide is present in our brewed coffee.”

California-based coffee manufacturers could be forced to post warning labels on their products sold in other states, where consumers are not desensitized to the alarming language, which is more common on products sold in California. In the past year, the language of the warnings that companies must post in compliance with Proposition 65 has changed. Retailers must now include a list of the carcinogenic chemicals, their method of transmission and a link to a government website, according to law firm K&L Gates.

“Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” said William Murray, president and CEO for the National Coffee Association. “This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers and does nothing to improve public health.”

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