After a judge ruled in March that coffee should be served with jolting labels that alert drinkers to a cancer risk, the state of California seems to have woken up to the concern that its pervasive health warnings may have gone too far.
“There’s a danger to overwarning—it’s important to warn about real health risks,” Sam Delson told The New York Times.
Delson is the deputy director for external and legislative affairs for California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The office proposed a regulation shortly after a March ruling that would unequivocally declare that any cancer-linked components of roasted and brewed coffee “pose no significant risk of cancer.” Today, August 16, the proposed regulation is getting a public hearing in Sacramento.
If the regulation is adopted, it’s expected to nullify the warning on Californians’ sacred morning brews. It’s also expected to water-down the controversial law known as Proposition 65 that led to the warning—and scores of others.
Proposition 65 was adopted in 1986 as a means to protect residents from exposure to chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm, particularly those that may taint drinking water. Under the law, businesses are prohibited from discharging significant amounts of such chemicals into sources of drinking water. It also requires that businesses notify consumers of exposures to such chemicals via any products.
In the years since its adoption, the list of chemicals under Prop 65 has ballooned to more than 900. And the rule has led to a frenzy of warnings, lawsuits, and pricey settlements. As the Times points out, products as far-ranging as tooth fillings, cereals, flip-flops, toilet paper, couch cushions, cosmetics, frozen oysters, headphones, kombucha, and even beloved chocolate have faced Prop 65 compliance. There are sites in Disneyland that bear Prop 65 warning signs. Last year, nearly 700 Prop 65 cases settled, leading to payouts totaling $25.8 million.
Critics of the law say it has become a farce and is being abused by unscrupulous organizations to extract money from businesses. Proponents have argued that it has forced product makers to think carefully about the chemicals they use in their products. Many businesses will simply remove components quietly rather than face a Prop 65 case or a warning label that could scare off consumers. And because of the state’s outsized economy, product restrictions there tend to ripple nationwide.
But the case against coffee was apparently a step too far—for officials both inside and outside of the state. “When we have mandatory cancer warnings on a cup of coffee, something has gone seriously wrong with the process,” Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) told the Times.
The case centers around acrylamide, a chemical used to make various polymers that is naturally found in cooked starchy foods, such as French fries and roasted coffee beans. At high doses, it has been linked to cancer in animal studies. But the trace amounts found in coffee are not known to pose a threat. In 2016, a panel of experts at the World Health Organization found “no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee.” Other experts and analyses, meanwhile, have identified health benefits of coffee, including lowering risks of certain cancers.
Nevertheless, Judge Elihu M. Berle in Los Angeles County Superior Court ruled in March that, under Prop 65, coffee had to come with a warning. The verdict was the end of a case brought in 2010 by a small nonprofit organization called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, which alleged that Starbucks and 90 or so other coffee makers did not inform coffee drinkers of the risk.
With the ruling potentially having far-reaching effects outside of California, big coffee makers such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts perked up and were planning lengthy appeals. Now, those plans are on hold as they wait for the new rule to pass, which, if it does, could take effect in November.