Regulations proposed Friday would explicitly exempt companies, including Starbucks, from putting cancer warning labels on coffee served in California. The new rule could settle a long-running legal dispute that some argue is driven by shaky science, mixed motives, and a particularly Californian brand of burdensome over-regulation.
The state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, which assesses environmental health risks, now says that there is “no significant cancer risk” associated with chemicals that occur naturally in brewed coffee, citing research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The revised rules would overturn a March 2018 court finding that warning labels were required under California’s Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act.
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The saga began as early as 2002, when researchers found the chemical acrylamide in an array of foods. Acrylamide is on California’s list of carcinogenic chemicals, and in 2010, an organization called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, or CERT, filed suit against Starbucks and dozens of other companies. The suit alleged that companies’ failure to put prominent warning labels on their products broke the law. Companies, including 7-Eleven, have already agreed to large settlements in the case.
But acrylamide in food is in many cases a natural byproduct of coffee roasting and other cooking processes, and scientific evidence that it is cancer-causing remains tentative. Many studies have found evidence that drinking coffee actually decreases the risk of cancer.
Further, some have alleged that the case was brought primarily to reap financial rewards for the plaintiff’s lawyers, which has brought other similar lawsuits and has ties to the group that brought the suit.
The new rule will now enter a review phase, with public hearings scheduled for August.