A California judge ruled Friday that Starbucks and other companies in the state must put cancer warning labels on cups because of a dangerous chemical that might be in brewed coffee.
The ruling is a culmination of an eight-year court case against Starbucks and other coffee chains like Peet’s that allege acrylamide, a chemical common to the cooking process, is carcinogenic, and that companies should warn consumers.
In his order, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said that Starbucks and the other defendants did not prove that coffee with acrylamide is healthy.
“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, according to The Washington Post. “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”
Acrylamide is hardly a new chemical. It’s not present in the coffee beans, but is a bi-product of the roasting process, and according to the Food and Drug Administration, it “has probably always been present in cooked foods.” Animals exposed to high doses of acrylamide in tests contracted cancer, prompting the World Health Organization to call it a human health concern in 2010. The organization then classified it as a “possible carcinogen” in 2016.
When it comes to humans though, the carcinogenic qualities of acrylamide are less clear. “Most of the studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans,” according to the American Cancer Society. “For some types of cancer, such as kidney, endometrial and ovarian cancer, the results have been mixed, but there are currently no cancer types for which there is clearly an increased risk related to acrylamide intake.”
That didn’t help the coffee companies in California, who now are exposed to massive fines. The plaintiffs have asked for settlements of $2,500 for every person exposed to the chemical in California through coffee products since 2002. Other companies, like 7-Eleven, have already settled.
“Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage,” William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association, said after the court’s decision. He added that the lawsuit “does nothing to improve public health.”
Attorney Raphael Metzger, who brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, said the warning label is important. “Getting it out is better for public health than leaving it in and warning people,” he said, according to The Associated Press. Metzger also drinks a few cups of coffee per day.
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