Coffee sold in California may carry cancer warning labels

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A nonprofit group wants coffee manufacturers, distributors and retailers to post ominous warnings about a cancer-causing chemical. Presenting evidence in a Los Angeles courtroom to make its case.

The substances 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 at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee.

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The lawyer taking on Big Coffee said the larger goal is to motivate the industry to remove the chemical from coffee, which would also benefit his own three-cup-a-day fix.

The law roundly criticized for abuses by lawyers shaking down businesses for quick settlements. But is also credited with reducing chemicals known to cause cancer and birth defects, such as lead in hair dyes, mercury in nasal sprays and arsenic in bottled water.

The state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment adopted new regulations last year. To require more specific warnings that list the chemical consumers exposed to and list a website with more information. Many of the coffee defendants have already posted warnings. Specifically California has determined acrylamide is among chemicals that cause cancer and attorneys have stated others. From mega-chains to mom-and-pop operations, will follow suit if the judge rules against them.

Excess case of cancer for every 100,000 people exposed

The law puts the burden on the defense. To show that the level of the chemical won’t result in one excess case of cancer for every 100,000 people exposed. Berle said the epidemiology studies they presented were inadequate to evaluate that risk.

However, Civil penalties could come to $2,500 per person exposed each day. With penalties reaching back eight years that could ring up an astronomical bill in a state. With close to 40 million residents, though such a massive figure is very unlikely.

Starbucks Corp., the lead defendant, would not comment on the case. Its latest quarterly report said it’s not “party to any legal proceeding that management believes could have a material adverse effect on our consolidated financial position, results of operations or cash flows.”

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Moreover, two of the defendants have settled in the past month and agreed to post warnings. BP West Coast Products, which operates gas station convenience stores, agreed to pay $675,000. Yum Yum Donuts Inc. agreed to pay nearly $250,000.