As previously feared, a judge in California has issued a ruling that puts a Draconian demand on coffee sellers statewide: Everyone from Starbucks and McDonald’s to Berkeley’s People’s Cafe will be required to warn their customers that coffee potentially causes cancer. The decision, issued by Los Angeles Superior Court judge Elihu Berle, was the result of an age-old lawsuit filed by a nonprofit called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, an outfit seemingly formed simply to sue California coffee retailers (90-some-odd in total) on grounds that they broke a state law forcing companies to disclose if their products have any carcinogenic chemicals.
CERT’s lawsuit noted that a by-product of roasting coffee beans is acrylamide, a compound scientists think may be linked to cancer. Under California’s Proposition 65, residents can, on the state’s behalf, sue companies that “knowingly” expose customers to carcinogens, then collect a portion of any damages. So that’s what CERT did, though it says the goal was always getting Big Coffee to remove a dangerous chemical from something two-thirds of Americans consume every day.
The defendants tried reasoning that the government’s own Dietary Guidelines lists coffee as part of a healthy lifestyle, and that coffee itself has a negligible amount of acrylamide. But Berle said the companies couldn’t disprove that a “significant risk” still exists if you drink coffee, writing, “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.” (Of course, by that rubric, fast-food chains should be wallpapered in warnings.)
CERT wants fines of up to $2,500 per incident between 2002 and 2010, the year its lawsuit was filed. And, yes, it means basically every cup of coffee sold in a state with 40 million people over an eight-year period. Some companies have said if that came to pass, they could go bankrupt. Civil penalties won’t get decided until the trial’s third phase, though legal experts don’t think damages stretching into the gazillions of dollars are that likely.
A lot of coffee sellers (7-Eleven was the biggest) decided to just cut their losses months ago and post the damn warning signs. As part of the deal, they also agreed to settle, in some cases paying millions in fines.