- - Monday, October 2, 2017


An ominous cancer warning may soon accompany every Frappuccino, cold brew and coffee bean sold in California.

After languishing in the courts for the better part of a decade, last week a lawsuit brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) gained ground, alleging that Starbucks and roughly 90 other coffee producers and retailers neglected to warn their customers about a naturally occurring carcinogen in coffee.

Acrylamide, a byproduct of roasting coffee beans and cooking starchy foods like potatoes, is listed under California’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals “known to the State of California” to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Under the onerous law, companies doing business in California are required to disclose the presence of chemicals that have a 1 in 100,000 chance of causing cancer.

Save for one venti-sized caveat: Not a single global health authority believes coffee causes cancer. Far from it — the 2015-2020 U.S. dietary guidelines even cite “strong and consistent evidence showing that, in healthy adults, moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases (e.g., cancer) or premature death, especially from [cardiovascular disease.]”

Even the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an organization so fast and loose with its cancer evaluations that it has labeled activities as innocuous as working the night shift and woodworking as cancer hazards, recently struck coffee from its list of possible carcinogens.

But under Prop 65, the actual danger of a food or product doesn’t matter so long as it contains enough of a listed chemical. “Enough,” by the way, can mean orders of magnitude less than what health agencies actually identify under their own safety limit. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates the average American man can consume 44 milligrams of acrylamide every day without concern for cancer, the threshold for a Proposition 65 warning is arbitrarily set at four-millionths (.000004) of that amount.

As some of the nation’s largest coffee manufacturers will soon learn, many businesses in California preemptively stick warning labels on their products to avoid the cost and hassle of a Prop 65 lawsuit. You can see warnings on jetways while boarding flights in California because planes serve alcohol — another of California’s nearly 900 suspected carcinogens. In fact, ubiquitous cancer warnings exist on basic consumer goods, including sunglasses and flip-flops because of the microscopic amount of chemicals like Phthalates used in the plastics process, or at gas stations or parking garages because of the presence of exhaust fumes.

Business operators’ over-cautionary approach exists for good reason. According to California’s attorney general, more than 5,000 predatory suits have been settled since 2000, stripping businesses of hundreds of millions of dollars that keep entrepreneurial lawyers in business. The result is a recurring legal nightmare in a state full of overwarned, under-informed consumers whose rate of many common cancers — cervical, liver, ovarian, stomach and testicular cancer among them — are either no different from or higher than national averages.

It begs the question: What good is a law that has failed to deliver results for more than 30 years?

CERT might best be able to answer that query. CERT earned more than $240,000 settling just two acrylamide lawsuits in the past decade. Perhaps most damning, the organization has no website and shares a mailing address with Metzger Law Group, the firm representing CERT in its Proposition 65 suits — thus allowing the law firm to collect both the attorney fees and the civil penalties resulting from the Proposition 65 suits.

As coffee retailers begin folding their hand under the mounting legal fees of CERT’s most recent assault, both the “nonprofit” and Metzger Law Group stand to make a substantial profit.

That CERT has dug in for seven years fighting Big Coffee over a product that yields no real health concern suggests their real motive is payouts, not people.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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