Carcinogenic Laws: Coffee Shop Cancer Warnings Do More Harm Than Good

Coffee shops in California have been ordered to post warnings that the coffee they sell can cause cancer. Not that it does—there is no scientific evidence of risk, surely not enough to warn against it. But in the eyes of California law, the microscopic existence of a specific chemical in coffee beans suffices to require a warning.

Steamed milk floats atop a cup of coffee at a cafe in Los Angeles. Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle has ruled that California law requires coffee companies to carry an ominous cancer warning label because of a chemical produced in the roasting process.  (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

The law is a thirty year old California rule known as Proposition 65. It requires companies selling products that expose people to cancer risk to post warnings of such exposure. If a product contains any substance that appears on California’s carcinogenic list, the company has to prove that the existence is harmless or else post the warning notice. One of the substances on the California list of carcinogens is Acrylamide.

When roasted, coffee beans emit the pernicious acrylamide (common also in many other foods), which—in significant dosage—can be toxic, and even carcinogenic. In coffee, however, it appears in such small amounts that no reliable scientific study has shown it to pose a meaningful danger. Acrylamide’s presence in coffee is not meaningfully greater than that in other daily foods such as toast, potato chips, or black olives.

But the hints of the chemical in coffee were enough to invite a lawsuit against Starbucks and other coffee shops. The plaintiffs did not prove that coffee actually harms consumers. They didn’t need to. Under California law, it was the burden of the defendant coffee shops to prove that coffee did not pose any health risks. The judge thought that the evidence defendants brought was not conclusive and decided that they must therefore post the warning.

A customer pours milk into coffee near a posted Proposition 65 warning sign at a Starbucks coffee shop in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Proposition 65, and its sweeping requirement of cancer warnings, is controversial. It imposes large costs on businesses, yet the warnings it germinated have never been shown to do much good. Numerous companies bear the cost of posting labels and signs on products. To no avail: because the law empowers anyone to sue, companies are sued by tireless plaintiffs, many of whom specialize in finding medium and small size targets. Under one count, over 16,000 Proposition 65 lawsuits have been filed so far, and a great many defendants had to pay large bounties to settle with plaintiffs. Even some of the original authors of the law consider many of these lawsuits as “gotcha” shakedown claims without merit.

Now, coffee shops are added to the long list of businesses that have to post the Prop65 warning signs (a list that contains retail stores, gas stations, parking garages, many products like toolsets, paint, cosmetics, pottery, leather, brass, vinyl, and thousands more). Posting the signs will not protect coffee shops from lawsuits for their past failures. The law provides a penalty (most of which gets collected by the plaintiff’s attorneys) of $2500 on each café each day during which it sold the so-called carcinogenic coffee without warning consumers.

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