A quiet case in a Los Angeles court could have a lasting impact on the coffee business both in the state of California and beyond. A lawsuit filed in 2010 by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) hit 90 coffee retailers in California, including Starbucks, stating that because they were not warning consumers of chemicals in their products that cause cancer, they were violating an existing California law.
As Reuters reported, one of the specific chemicals is acrylamide, "a byproduct of roasting coffee beans that is present in high levels in brewed coffee." In response to the lawsuit, the National Coffee Association (NCA) stated that the industry would consider an appeal given "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." While the health benefits of coffee are widely accepted, it's still unknown if the NCA will appeal the decision.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle decided that Starbucks and the other retailers, per Reuters, "failed to show there was no significant risk from a carcinogen produced in the coffee roasting process." The California judge's rules also affects McDonald's Corp., Dunkin' Donuts, Peet's, and countless other coffee sellers operating in California. The original lawsuit called for fines as big as $2,500 for every person's exposure to the chemical since 2002.
This was the third phase of the trial, as Starbucks lost the first phase where it was decided that the company did not show the level of acrylamide in coffee was below the threshold that would pose a significant risk of cancer. Additionally, in the second phase of trial, the defending coffee companies did not prove there was an acceptable "alternative" risk level for the carcinogen, or in other words, harmless levels of risk for the carcinogen.
Many defendants in the case settled before the decision and agreed to not only post signage, but pay millions in fines. The other retailers, like Starbucks, have until April 10 to file an objection to the decision of the Los Angeles judge. This suit could send waves throughout the coffee industry if this suit takes hold in other states, where it would become a public health matter.