Prop 65 Ruling Causes Confusion and Fear

On 29 March, a judge in California issued a proposed ruling against the coffee industry in a long-standing case involving the state’s Proposition 65, potentially leading to coffee carrying “cancer warning” labels. The case has been widely reported in the press over the last few weeks – most often with the headline “Coffee May Cause Cancer” – which has led to misinformation resulting in confusion among consumers, thus, elevating unnecessary anxiety and fear. To help clarify any ambiguity or uncertainty regarding Prop 65 and the recent ruling, I’m going to state the facts as I know them.

It’s my understanding that the court case was for the named defendants to defend themselves for not labelling the coffee with the argument that since coffee is more helpful than harmful, and the amount of acrylamide is miniscule, coffee should be exempt. The judge’s decision is not new – the decision was made in 1986 by the voters in California – the judge is affirming or enforcing the law not changing it.

California’s Proposition 65 – “Prop 65” as it is known – originated as a 1986 ballot initiative. It is formally known as the “Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.” Among other items, Prop 65 prohibits businesses (1) from releasing certain substances into the environment, and (2) from exposing individuals to “listed substances” without providing a warning. Essentially, the law requires warning labels that advise consumers about any chemical that may be cancer causing.

Acrylamide, a chemical that exists in many foods, is on the Prop 65 list. Acrylamide is formed by reacting a reducing sugar (glucose, fructose) and free amino acid asparagine (in proteins). It is not added to coffee — acrylamide forms naturally when coffee is roasted, similar to the way it forms naturally in a variety of plant-based foods rich in carbohydrates and proteins when baked, fried, or roasted (like French fries, potato chips, crackers, even cereal). The amount of acrylamide in coffee – again, produced naturally as a byproduct of roasting – is minute. But those trace amounts of acrylamide made it possible to target coffee under Prop 65, even though coffee has never been shown to increase cancer risk. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

The National Coffee Association (NCA) and Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) have been trying to clarify concerns and miscommunication about Prop 65, coffee and acrylamide, noting that the preponderance of scientific research finds coffee consumption part of a healthy lifestyle, and that there is no evidence that coffee is carcinogenic. Conversely, a slew of recent independent studies suggest that coffee may help to prevent certain cancers.

In a statement following the 29 March ruling, William (“Bill”) Murray, president and CEO of the New York-based NCA said, “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage. This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health.”

The SCA, which is headquartered in Santa Ana, California, issued a release to its members expressing disappointment in the ruling, noting that the “decision will have a negative effect on consumers who will be confused by cancer labels on a beverage that is known to be part of a healthy diet and on small coffee businesses who will need to navigate the legal complexities of this decision.”

Under Prop 65, businesses are required to show the burden of proof that they should not be subject to the law. Furthermore, the law empowers what are known as “bounty hunter lawsuits” brought by private (non-government) parties — basically a goldmine for lawyers.

The NCA has been actively fighting against coffee’s inclusion in Prop 65. In the same statement (following the 29 March ruling), the NCA emphasised that cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading, “The US government’s own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that coffee does not cause cancer. Study after study has provided evidence of the health benefits of drinking coffee, including longevity – coffee drinkers live longer.”

The NCA was not a party to the legal action but has been working tirelessly to support the defendants and provide research, facts and context about Prop 65. Per the NCA, the coffee industry is currently considering all its options, including potential appeals and further legal actions.

To learn more information on Proposition 65, coffee and cancer, visit the NCA blog: Prop. 65 Percolates: What You Need to Know or see the original NCA Statement on CERT Lawsuit. If you have any lingering questions, please feel free to contact me and I will try to ascertain them for you.

Photo courtesy of Press Coffee

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