The caffeine dependent in California may want to opt for a cup of tea instead of that espresso as a Los Angeles judge has ruled that coffee companies in the state must note the presence of acrylamide, a cancer-causing chemical produced in the roasting process. The chemical falls under the state’s Prop 65 rule that requires companies to clearly label the presence of carcinogens.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle ruled on Wednesday in favor a non-profit that sued close to 100 coffee retailers in the state, including Starbucks. The lawsuit alleged that the coffee companies were violating the Prop 65 rule by not disclosing the presence of the chemical acrylamide, found in high levels in coffee.
The lawsuit was initially filed in 2010 by the nonprofit the Council for Education and Research on Toxics. The suit asked for coffee companies to pay fines of $2,500 per person exposed to the chemical since 2002. “Any civil penalties, which will be decided in a third phase of the trial, could be huge in California, which has a population of nearly 40 million,” reports Reuters.
Lawyers for Starbucks aimed to show the court that acrylamide levels in the chain’s coffee were below cancer-risk levels. It failed to prove that point, according to the court. And in the trial’s second phase, defendants were unable to prove “alternative” risk levels for acrylamide. The chemical has also been linked to dangers for fetuses and the male reproductive system.
“Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health,” the judge said in his decision, concluding that the defendants had failed to prove that roasted coffee does not pose a cancer risk. The defendants have until April 10th to file objections to the ruling.
“Cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading. The U.S. government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle,” the National Coffee Association said in a statement. The organization plans to appeal the judge’s ruling.
The NCA’s statement has been validated by numerous studies linking coffee to health benefits. But whether those benefits outrank the dangers of acrylamide exposure is unclear. Acrylamide is also found in starchy foods when exposed to high temperatures, like potato chips and french fries. It’s also present in cigarettes. The American Cancer Society points to several studies on acrylamide exposure but concluded that neither human nor lab studies provided enough clear evidence to deem it a carcinogen. “Based on the studies done so far, it’s not yet clear if acrylamide affects cancer risk in people,” the site notes.
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