Proposition 65 mislabels coffee by adding cancer warning labels

In Opinion
A coffee cup and coffee beans with a warning label that says it could possibly cause cancer.
A California Superior Court judge's decision that requires coffee to carry warning labels is absurd and creates flawed thinking. (Katie Albertson / Daily Titan)

Whatever nickname it has at home — morning joe, java, rocket fuel — coffee is a necessary indulgence that ultimately makes people throw back the covers, knowing they can jump-start the morning and that the rest of the day will somehow be made better with it’s consumption.

But the judicial system, not medical professionals or scientists, are now making a ridiculous judgement that coffee is on the list of substances to be avoided because it might give people cancer. Demanding that cancer warnings be placed on cups of coffee is overblown hysteria and flawed thinking.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics recently won a lawsuit against Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Peet’s Coffee and many other members of the National Coffee Association, saying the companies are in violation of California Proposition 65.

This claim is based on the fact that coffee contains acrylamide, a chemical that naturally forms when plant-based foods are roasted or cooked at high temperatures. Coffee, the latest victim of the toxics council, forms acrylamide when the coffee beans are roasted.

As a result, coffee companies, by law, must place warning signs in stores and on individual cups informing people that coffee is known in the state of California to cause cancer.

This decision was not made by a scientist or through any biomedical research, as it should have been, but by a Superior Court Judge, Elihu Berle.

“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 in his decision.

No one is claiming that coffee doesn’t contain acrylamide, a carcinogen, because it does. What is in question though, is proof that acrylamide poses a health risk to humans, which hasn’t substantially been proven.

The World Health Organization deems acrylamide a “probable” cause of cancer for rats. However, American Cancer Society research has found that humans process acrylamide differently than rodents, and have found no link between cancer in humans and acrylamide.

People aren’t going to be able to understand these risks and interpret “probable” causes. Instead, these short warning signs may pose misunderstandings about coffee that baristas would rather not have to explain to customers.

This issue doesn’t only occur with coffee but in many locations and products — from french fries to cereal to cookies. Though people may not notice it, signs are posted that say, “This area contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.”

The problem lies in the stringent way Proposition 65 was written. California’s Proposition 65 offers protection for and encompasses over 800 chemicals known to man and according to its guidelines, it pertains to anything that has a “1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer in a person when exposed to the product over 70 years.”

Take a second to digest that quote — that’s a cup of coffee everyday for 70 years and still only having a 1 in 100,000 chance of getting cancer. Not to mention this testing was done on rodents that received a dose 1,000 times the amount of acrylamide in the average cup of joe.

Finding trace amounts of any substance listed on the Proposition 65 list has proven to be a gold mine for nonprofits and their lawyers. Since Proposition 65 took effect in 1986, over $25.6 million has been won in court by nonprofits like the toxics council and lawyers who took home 75 percent of it, according to The Wall Street Journal.

There are also heavy fines for those who do not comply with the court rulings. Fines can be up to $2,500 per day for stores that do not have a Proposition 65 sign posted. 7-Eleven relented and paid out over $900,000 after the judgement was rendered. Additionally, the toxics council is calling for cancer warning labels on every cup of coffee sold and could sue coffee chains $2,500 for every cup that was not labeled.

Combined with massive fines being pushed onto lawyers, the entire ordeal is expensive legislative overkill and just a quick way for lawyers to make money.

People love the taste, smell and flavor of coffee too much to abandon it. Unless scientists can prove without a doubt that there is a link between coffee and cancer, people don’t need to take these signs seriously because they are nothing more than a nuisance.

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