The Council for Education and Research on Toxics used a California law to take the coffee industry to court. The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, also known as Proposition 65, requires labels for nearly 900 chemicals known to cause birth defects or cancer. Failure to include such labels would allow citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys to sue companies on behalf of the state.
Coffee companies, led by Starbucks, claim that the trace levels of acrylamide in coffee are harmless and that the benefits of drinking coffee far outweigh any risks.
However, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle announced that 90 coffee companies were unable to successfully prove their case.
"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.
"Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving […] that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health," he added, CNBC reported.
"This lawsuit has made a mockery of Proposition 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health," said William Murray, president and CEO of the National Coffee Association.
The Council for Education and Research on Toxics is the same group that took potato chip companies to court in California years ago for the similar reasons. Potato-chip makers eventually agreed to remove acrylamide from their products under the terms of the settlement.
Raphael Metzger, an attorney for the nonprofit, stated that coffee roasters must remove acrylamide from coffee, just like chip makers have been mandated to. However, coffee companies claim that the chemical cannot be removed without affecting flavor.
"The judge could impose crippling penalties which is all the more reason why it would behoove these companies to settle the case," Metzger added Friday.
Although the law only currently applies in California, many claim that it may not be feasible for coffee companies who sell nationally and internationally to create packaging specifically for California. That means that the coffee industry may be required to provide warnings on all products sold, making it a matter of time before cancer warnings on coffee products spread to other states.