Legal Insurrection readers may recall our January report that a judge in California was going to decide whether coffee should carry warnings stating that it contains chemicals known to the state to cause long-term health effects, per the rules enacted after passage of Proposition 65 in 1986.

The long-running lawsuit claimed 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. The warning pertains to the trace amount of acrylamide found in delicious, caffeine-filled brews, which “is a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm”.

The ruling has officially come down, and it is everything a nanny-stater would want.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said Wednesday that the coffee makers hadn’t presented the proper grounds at trial to prevail.

“While plaintiff offered evidence that consumption of coffee increases the risk of harm to the fetus, to infants, to children and to adults, defendants’ medical and epidemiology experts testified that they had no opinion on causation,” Berle wrote in his proposed ruling. “Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving … that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”

What does this ruling mean for businesses that sell coffee?

California businesses will be required to provide a “clear and reasonable” warning before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a Prop. 65 listed chemical. The state offers a few suggestions for what that means, including posting signs at a workplace, distributing notices at a rental housing complex or publishing notices in a newspaper.

Penalties for failing to do so could be up to $2,500 per person exposed each day over eight years, according to The Associated Press.

A look at the actual science shows that the data tying low doses of acrylamide to adverse health effects isn’t quite settled, either.

When coffee beans are roasted, the compound acrylamide is produced as a by-product. “Acrylamide is ubiquitous in our food chain. It’s a product of high heat and prolonged cooking, particularly with carbohydrates,” says Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. It’s found in fried potatoes, for example, as well as in cigarette smoke and some products such as adhesives. “It’s a chemical to which we have frequent exposure.”

Some studies have found an increased cancer risk in mice and rats who were fed acrylamide, but those studies used doses between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than levels that people would be exposed to in food. There have not been strong studies in humans to demonstrate the carcinogenicity of acrylamide.

Crunching the numbers, you would have to drink 64 liters of coffee a day to achieve the level of exposure the test rats experienced. Nevertheless, under the stringent rules of Proposition 65, here is a sample of some of the new decor you will see in California’s coffee shops!

I will simply point out that this sign will be ignored, just as the same signs for alcohol are. Legal Insurrection readers would be unsurprised to discover Californians like to drink, to the point there is a proposal to extend bar open times to 4 am statewide!

Normal people are treating this ruling with all the seriousness that it deserves.

But, perhaps the best analysis comes from a natural toothpaste manufacturer that is forced to comply with the Prop. 65 label rules.


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