A lawsuit underway in California is just one step away from forcing Starbucks and other coffee sellers in the state to warn customers that they’re guzzling venti cups of “probable human carcinogens.” It’s the work of a tiny consumer group, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, that’s been at war since 2010 with about 90 different companies that sell or distribute coffee in California — the lead defendant is Starbucks, but the suit also names Dunkin’ Donuts, Seattle’s Best, Whole Foods, and a bunch of convenience stores.
The crux of CERT’s suit is that the coffee-roasting process creates acrylamide, a substance the federal government classifies as “extremely hazardous.” It’s actually a natural by-product of cooking anything to a temperature above 248 degrees (so, in other words, it also turns up in French fries and dried fruits), but the coffee industry lost the first round of arguments two years ago. The trial resumed Monday in what’s effectively the defense’s last-ditch effort; if they lose this time, they could be required to slap what the AP calls “ominous warnings about a cancer-causing chemical stewing in every brew.”
While it’s true even prominent toxicologists believe CERT’s case is “totally absurd” — some studies show you’d have to drink “over 100 cups of coffee a day” to hit a dangerous dose — California’s been unkind to food manufacturers whose products contain acrylamide: Frito-Lay, Heinz, Lance, and other potato-chip-makers settled a separate lawsuit in 2008 in which they agreed to pay $3 million and reduce acrylamide levels in their products.
Perhaps the most frightening part for coffee companies is the civil penalties. CERT is suing under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which allows for fines as high as $2,500 per day for each person exposed. (For quick context, the suit now spans a period stretching back about eight years, and California is a state with a population of 40 million.) A loss could mean an astronomical bill, although it’s generally agreed that a figure so massive “is very unlikely.” Still, CERT’s own lawyer tells the AP that “like two-thirds of the population,” he too is a coffee addict, and would therefore “like the industry to get acrylamide out of the coffee so my addiction doesn’t force me to ingest it.”
Difficult as it might be to imagine Frappuccinos plastered with stickers warning about cancer, the AP reports that coffee companies are already caving. Two defendants settled in just the past month alone. Neither was predominantly a coffee business (one is Yum Yum Donuts, the other runs BP’s convenience stores), but they collectively paid almost a million dollars in penalties and have agreed to post warning labels.