In 1986, California’s Proposition 65 (the Safe Drinking Water & Toxic Enforcement Act) was passed, placing restrictions on toxic discharges into drinking water and required that people be notified who were exposed to carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

While the idea sounded wonderful at the time, the implementation of the rules has created a plethora of warning labels that get ignored and an astonishing number of revenue-generating lawsuits targeting businesses selling products that contain trace amounts of substances unlikely to be harmful, given the dose and the typical use situation of the consumer.

Because coffee contains a trace amount of a chemical known as acrylamide (“known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm”), it may be subject to these warnings and the coffee sellers may be facing fines:

A judge in California will soon decide whether coffee should carry warnings stating that it contains chemicals known to the state to cause cancer.

A long-running lawsuit that claims Starbucks and about 90 other companies, including grocery stores and retail shops, failed to follow a state law requiring warning signs about hazardous chemicals found everywhere from household products to workplaces to the environment.

At the center of the dispute is acrylamide, a carcinogen found in cooked foods such as French fries that is also a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process. The coffee industry has acknowledged the presence of the chemical but asserts it is at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee.

A verdict in favor of the little-known Council for Education and Research on Toxics could send a jolt through the industry with astronomical penalties possible and it could wake up a lot of consumers, though it’s unclear what effect it would have on coffee-drinking habits.

It turns out that this is not the “Council for Education and Research on Toxics” first legal rodeo, either.

Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) v. McDonald’s and Burger King. In 2002, the Metzger Law Group filed the first Proposition 65 case regarding acrylamide on behalf of the Council for Education and Research on Toxics to require fast food companies such as McDonald’s and Burger King to warn consumers of the acrylamide hazard in french fries.

Eventually the California Attorney General joined the suit and the Metzger Law Group co-litigated the case with the Attorney General. After 6 years of litigation and several months of expert depositions, the case settled in 2008 when McDonald’s and Burger King agreed to provide cancer hazard warnings regarding acrylamide in their french fries, agreed to pay civil penalties to CERT and the Attorney General, and paid attorney’s fees to the Metzger Law Group for protecting public health.

As a result of this lawsuit, fast food companies in California now give consumers such cancer hazard warnings regarding acrylamide in french fries. The lawsuit also prompted potato chip manufacturers such as Frito Lay to improve their production process to reduce the acrylamide content of their potato chips to safe levels.

The lawyer spear-heading the attack on “Big Coffee” is pursuing the case for entirely noble reasons.

“I’m addicted — like two-thirds of the population,” attorney Raphael Metzger said. “I would like the industry to get acrylamide out of the coffee so my addiction doesn’t force me to ingest it.”

I would argue that CERT is addicted to the monies they get in the civil penalties.

The biggest problem with the implementation of Proposition 65 is that the level of “no significant risk” is difficult to define. As an example, what is the actual dose of acrylamide in coffee?

You need to drink 64 liters of roasted coffee brew a day to reach carcinogenic levels. Safe daily intake level of acrylamide before neurotoxic level is even higher at 40 μg/kg per day, equivalent to 6222 cups or 995 liters of roasted coffee brew a day. As you can see, the acrylamide levels found in coffee are safe.

I consume a lot of coffee while I blog, but I have yet to hit 64 liters daily.

What is really toxic is the effect of Proposition 65 on small businesses, as explained in this video.

I guess when the coffee shops close, Californians can head over to the pot-shop for the carcinogen-free marijuana.


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