Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Coffee Could Lead to Warning Labels on Every Cup
In the near future, a cup of coffee purchased in California could give you jitters before you even take a sip: A nonprofit group wants coffee manufacturers, distributors, and retailers in California to post ominous warnings about acrylamide, a potentially cancer-causing chemical produced naturally in the coffee-roasting process.
The long-running lawsuit, which first went to court in 2010, resumed Monday in Los Angeles, claiming Starbucks and about 90 other companies, including grocery stores and retail shops, failed to follow a state law requiring warning signs about hazardous chemicals found everywhere from household products to workplaces to the environment.
The coffee industry has acknowledged the presence of acrylamide but asserts it is at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee. The law puts the burden on the defense to show the level of the chemical won't result in one excess case of cancer for every 100,000 people exposed. But coffee companies failed to do so two years ago, when a judge found existing evidence inadequate to evaluate the risks.
A final verdict against coffee companies could send a jolt through the industry with potentially astronomical penalties and a wake-up call to a lot of consumers, though it's unclear what effect it would have on coffee-drinking habits.
As they present their last defense, coffee companies expect to prevail under an exemption for chemicals that result naturally from cooking necessary for palatability or to avoid microbiological contamination.
The lawyer taking on Big Coffee said the larger goal is to motivate the industry to remove the chemical from coffee, which would benefit his own three-cup-a-day fix, and potentially, coffee drinkers in states besides California.
"The intent is not to scare people," said Allan Hirsch, chief deputy of California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA). "The intention is to help people make more informed decisions. If you continue to buy a product that will expose you to a chemical, that's OK as long as you're informed."
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