California Proposes Rule to Remove Coffee from Cancer Risk List

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The California Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) on Friday issued a notice seeking public comment on a proposed regulation that would lift a court ruling that coffee poses a cancer risk. The proposed regulation is good news for Starbucks Corp. (NASDAQ: SBUX) and other coffee purveyors that would have had to include a warning of coffee’s cancer risk on every cup, bag, or can sold.

In late March a Superior Court judge in Los Angeles ruled that the evidence of coffee’s risk was sufficient given that the state had failed to prove that coffee provided health benefits. Under California law (Proposition 65), any product that includes a known carcinogen must carry a warning label and that’s what the judge ordered coffee sellers to do.

The OEHHA has now gotten its act together and reviewed more than 1,000 studies of the cancer risk posed by drinking coffee and concluded that acrylamide, the carcinogen in coffee, has not been proved to increase cancer risk and that other ingredients in coffee may, in fact, reduce the risk for some types of cancer.

Citing a study published June 13 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the OEHHA concluded:

[E]xposures to Proposition 65 listed chemicals in coffee that are produced as part of and inherent in the processes of roasting coffee beans and brewing coffee pose no significant risk of cancer. The proposed regulation would clarify this determination.

The proposed regulation will further the goals of the authorizing statute by clarifying that there is no significant cancer risk resulting from exposures to listed carcinogens in coffee that are created by and inherent in the processes of roasting coffee beans or brewing coffee.

An attorney for The Council for Education and Research on Toxics, which won the March court decision, told KOMO news:

The takeaway is that the state is proposing a rule contrary to its own scientific conclusion. That’s unprecedented and bad. The whole thing stinks to high hell.

The coffee industry never denied that the beverage contains acrylamide. Its argument was based on the low levels of the toxin present in coffee and the drink’s other benefits that reduce cancer risk.

If the OEHHA rule is adopted, businesses like Starbucks will not have to warn consumers that coffee poses a cancer risk. Even if that happens the rule is likely to be challenged again in court.