California Coffee Companies Must Display Cancer Warning Label, Judge Rules

Despite the ruling, the links between coffee and cancer remain unclear

Shinya Suzuki/Flickr CC

Coffee companies in California may soon be required to display a warning label alerting customers to a possible carcinogen in their brews. As Nate Raymond of Reuters reports, a Los Angeles judge ruled in favor of the not-for-profit group Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT), which brought a lawsuit against some 90 coffee companies, claiming that they violated California law by failing to disclose the presence of a compound that has been linked to increased cancer risks.

The compound at the heart of the coffee conundrum is acrylamide, which forms naturally during the preparation of certain foods, like French fries, potato chips, bread, cookies, cereals, canned black olives and prune juice and coffee. Acrylamide is the product of a chemical reaction that happens between certain sugars and the amino acid asparagine when the food is heated. The resulting levels of the compound vary based on how food is prepared. Frying, roasting, broiling and baking certain foods are more likely to create acrylamide, while steaming, boiling or microwaving are less likely to do so. When it comes to your cuppa joe, acrylamide is formed during the roasting of coffee beans.

According to Jen Christensen of CNN, the coffee companies named in the lawsuit—among them Starbucks and Peet’s—tried to argue in court that levels of acrylamide in coffee should be considered safe, and that the benefits of drinking coffee outweigh any risks. But Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle sided with the CERT.

“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, as Eli Rosenberg reports for 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.”

Berle’s ruling is preliminary, but according to Rosenberg, it is “unlikely to be reversed.” An upcoming phase of the trial will decide the civil penalties that the companies must pay. The lawsuit, filed in 2010, calls for fines of as much as $2,500 for every person exposed to acrylamide in coffee since 2002, creating the possibility for huge penalties. Several companies, including 7/11, settled before Berle handed down his decision on Wednesday.

Acrylamide has been on California’s list of carcinogens since 1990. But whether the chemical actually increases cancer risks in humans remains unclear. According to the American Cancer Society, acrylamide was found to increase the risk for certain types of cancer in mice and rats, but the animals were administered doses 1,000 to 10,000 times higher than the levels that people are exposed to in food. Based on studies of lab rats, the Environmental Protection Agency has classed acrylamide as a “probable human carcinogen.”

Human studies, however, have yielded murky results. For some types of cancer—like kidney, ovarian and endometrial cancer—the findings have been mixed. But, the American Cancer Society writes, “[m]ost of the studies done so far have not found an increased risk of cancer in humans.”

In 2016, the World Health Organization removed coffee from its list of cancer-causing agents, citing a lack of evidence linking coffee to the disease. At the same time, the agency has called for a reduction of acrylamide levels in food because “it has been shown to cause cancer in animals.”

The companies involved in the lawsuit have until April 10 to file an objection to the court's decision.