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Court rules coffee in California must carry cancer warning

Longstanding debate on coffee’s health credentials takes new turn as judge rules in favour of mandatory cancer warnings on Californian coffee
A Los Angeles County Superior Judge has ruled that all coffee shops and sellers in the state of California must introduce labelling to warn of the cancer risk posed from drinking coffee.

The lawsuit brought by a California-based non-profit group in 2010 hinges on the presence of acrylamide in coffee, a by-product of the roasting process. The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) argued coffee companies were in breach of the state’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act for not warning consumers about the carcinogen.

The ruling means cafés and coffee traders could technically be fined up to $2,500 for every person exposed to acrylamide through drinking coffee in California since 2002.

More than 91 defendants represented by the National Coffee Association (NCA) argued that the small amounts of acrylamide found in coffee after roasting did not pose significant threat to public health.

The group, which includes Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and McCafé, sought to prove the chemical was present at harmless levels. They cited evidence from the US Food and Food and Drug Administration, which advises acrylamide “has probably always been present in cooked foods.”

However, Judge Elihu Berle ruled in favour of the plaintiff, stating coffee companies had not offered sufficient evidence that the risk posed by acrylamide was nominal.

“While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the foetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation.

“Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health,” said Berle.

Responding to ruling, the NCA condemned the use of cancer labelling as “misleading.”
“The US government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” a statement from the organisation said.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) also poured cold water on the ruling, arguing there is no evidence linking coffee to cancer.

Responding to the court decision on his AICR blog, Dr. Edward L. Giovannucci, wrote: “Studies that have measured levels of acrylamide in the blood in humans, including in high coffee consumers, have shown no hint of increased cancer risk.”  

“There are hundreds of epidemiological studies on coffee and cancer and essentially none suggest increased cancer risk. On a “cancer worry” scale from 0-10, coffee should be solidly at 0 and smoking at 10; they should not have similar warning labels,” he added.

CERT and individual coffee companies represented in the case have not yet issued a reaction to the ruling. Whether any coffee companies will face financial penalties remains undetermined and defendants have until 10 April to file objections to the decision.


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