Coffee sold in California could carry cancer warning labels

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A future cup of coffee in California could give you jitters before you even take a sip.

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

The long-running lawsuit that resumed Monday claims 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.

At the center of the dispute is 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 it is at harmless levels and is outweighed by benefits from drinking coffee.

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Although the case has been percolating in the courts since 2010, it has gotten little attention.

A verdict in favor of the little-known Council for Education and Research on Toxics could send a jolt through the industry with astronomical penalties possible and it could wake up a lot of consumers, though it’s unclear what effect it would have on coffee-drinking habits.

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.

“I’m addicted — like two-thirds of the population,” attorney Raphael Metzger said. “I would like the industry to get acrylamide out of the coffee so my addiction doesn’t force me to ingest it.”

Under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, passed by voters as Proposition 65 in 1986, private citizens, advocacy groups and attorneys can sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of civil penalties.

Metzger represented the council in a case later taken up by the state attorney general that resulted in potato-chip makers agreeing in 2008 to pay $3 million and remove acrylamide from their product.

The law has been 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.

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