Cancer Warnings May Not Be Required on Coffee in California After All

By Lisa M. Schaffer, Esq. on August 16, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

California coffee drinkers are headed for a showdown. Will coffee shops be forced to claim coffee is cancerous, as declared by a Los Angeles judge earlier this year? Or not, as proposed by a California State Agency that says the cancer risks are slim and all the warnings are creating too much noise for the average consumer.

Science hasn't changed -- the coffee roasting process still creates acrylamide, a carcinogen listed in Prop 65 warnings. Culinary preference hasn't changed -- trying to take out the acrylamide still results in bad-tasting coffee. So why the proposed change? The burgeoning number of Prop 65 warnings has potentially desensitized consumers to serious health hazards.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

The agency's stance is coming on the heels of a mounting backlash against ubiquitous consumer warnings. There definitely is a danger in over-warning, and California doesn't want to be the Boy Who Cried Wolf. It hopes to save cancer warnings for when there really is a potential risk. But with people drinking upwards of 5 cups of coffee per day, every day, more religiously than religion, how can we be sure coffee should get a pass?

In a similar effort to decrease the number of Prop 65 signs, some products, such as breakfast cereal, are getting a pass from having to list a warning, even though they contain Prop 65 ingredients. The State was convinced that the product's health benefits outweigh the potential cancer risk posed by the presence of acrylamide, which, again, is created during the roasting process of the cereal.

Roundup Got a Pass, and Then a $282 Million Judgment Against It

Recently, Monsanto successfully argued in March, 2018 that its Roundup product need not carry the Prop 65 warning, based on a First Amendment Free Speech issue. There, the courts agreed that Monsanto shouldn't have to put a label on its product that it doesn't believe to be true. (How did Monsanto get away with this, and not the tobacco industry?) However just five months later, a California jury awarded $289 million to a plaintiff that sued Monsanto, claiming he contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma from contact with Roundup. So perhaps Monsanto won the battle, but lost the war. Incidentally, Monsanto says it will appeal, but with interest on $289 million amounting to about $20 million per year, the company will have to weigh that appeal very carefully.

The state will decide in November whether or not coffee shops will have to post a Prop 65 warning. Until then, they have been issued a pass. Next up on the Prop 65 docket: bedsheets, kombucha, headphones, almonds, and chocolate.

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