- A Los Angeles judge ruled last week that coffee sellers must place a cancer warning on coffee sold in California, according to Bloomberg. The tentative decision follows a lawsuit brought against more than 90 companies including Starbucks, Peet's, Whole Foods and Target for failing to adhere to the state's required chemical warnings, and could subject them to millions of dollars in fines.
- One of the chemicals in question is acrylamide, a "probable human carcinogen" according to the World Health Organization and a byproduct of roasting coffee beans, which can be found in high levels in brewed coffee, according to Reuters. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle stated that the defendants failed to prove there was a safe level of consumer exposure to the chemical in roasted coffee.
- The defendants have until April 10 to file objections to the ruling. Several companies in the case settled before the decision and agreed to display signage about acrylamide for consumers, as well as pay fines. In a statement, the National Coffee Association said it is considering an appeal or further legal action, stating that "Cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading. The U.S. government's own Dietary Guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle."
The outcome of this ruling could send shock waves through the coffee industry both within and beyond the Golden State. Coffee roasters have claimed that it's impossible to cut acrylamide without altering the flavor of the beverage, and that exposure to acrylamide poses no risk to coffee drinkers — but they may be forced to change their tune.
This lawsuit, first filed in 2010, came under California's Proposition 65, a law enacted as part of the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. It requires businesses to warn consumers of exposure to carcinogens and other toxic chemicals. If Berle's decision that defendants are in violation of this requirement stands, Starbucks, Whole Foods and other major coffee retailers will be in hot water. The suit urges that the companies be slapped with fines as large as $2,500 for each time a consumer was exposed to acrylamide without being warned, which could have massive consequences in populous California.
If grocers and coffee retailers are forced to roll out cancer warnings alongside their coffee products in California stores, health-conscious consumers will no doubt be rattled. In a time where transparency and clean labels are among shoppers' top demands, evidence that their morning latte could be filled with carcinogens could turn customers against their favorite brands, undermining consumer trust and greatly damaging company health halos.
Even if other states don't follow regulation-heavy California's lead on a warning label, coffee roasters should seriously consider revamping their production methods to minimize production of acrylamide. Potential carcinogens would impact customers nationwide, and failure to rectify the issue could be a death blow in terms of public perception — especially for brands like Whole Foods and Starbucks, which position themselves as mission-driven and ethically minded.
It's unclear how expensive and time-consuming it would be for coffee manufacturers to change their roasting methods, and if it will really have a discernable impact on coffee flavor. Companies could gamble that coffee lovers are more interested in the integrity of their coffee's taste than an arguably safer product, but the ruling will likely push the coffee industry to alter their production methods — if only to avoid more fines like California's in the future. How big of a drain this process will be on the segment — and whether extra costs will be passed on to the consumer — remains to be seen.
This ruling may also push acrylamide reduction into the limelight in the United States. Many European manufacturers and restaurants have been working to change their food preparation methods to reduce the chemical, while the United States has been quiet about any potential reforms. A lawsuit was filed last year after high levels of acrylamide were found in Walgreen's brand animal crackers, but it is still pending. This ruling, involving some of America's biggest food companies and one of the nation's most popular drinks, is a bit more noticeable.