A battle is brewing in California, and it may just be too much for many residents. Since a 1986 state law went into effect, anything that is deemed to contain cancer-causing agents are required to be labeled for consumer protection. Instead of getting rid of any of these risks, the warnings have become so routine that most ignore them. A fight to get warnings placed on a new group of products often starts with a massive lawsuit, and that is what is happening in court today. This time coffee businesses like Starbucks, Keurig, and 7-Eleven are facing millions of dollars in fines.
A group of lawyers in court have your morning coffee up for debate. A few years ago researchers discovered trace amount of a chemical that in larger doses may cause cancer. Acrylamide is found in coffee as it is produced naturally is the roasting process. It also appears on a list of 900 chemicals that the state of California has determined to cause cancer, even if trace amounts of the substances are not a risk. The idea that they can sue giants like Starbucks has brought leftist lawsuits out of the woodwork, and now judges in California will need to figure them out.
In 1986, California passed the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act by a vote of 63%. This was passed to force companies to inform consumers about dangerous chemicals being released into the water, air, and food. The by-product of the act was to allow private citizens to sue companies that do not follow the law.
These lawsuits have become big business for lawyers in the state. They seem to look for the next suit and the next big payday. Now they have their eyes on the deep pockets of your favorite coffee chain. Lawyers contend that any place that sells coffee should already have the required warnings.
In 2017, there were 681 settlements tied to this law and $25.6 million in awards. Lawyers fees make up 75% of these awards, even though the consumers are the face of the court battles. This is not a law to protect consumers but to make a profit for lawyers.
While 7-Eleven is named in the larger court case over coffee, they have already agreed to settle. Their coffee sales ended in $900,000 cash payment and new warning labels for all coffee products. Starbucks has posted limited amounts of signs warning of the risks at their stores but has not started to label as widespread as the courts would demand. Their current labels cover the coffee prep station where customers can add sugar to their cups since sugar is also on the list of cancer-causing products.
At the center of this court case is the fact that the law does have some built-in exemptions. Because the amounts of acrylamide are trace and are something that is produced during the roasting process, it may, in fact, be beyond the scope of the required warnings. The law does have a small window that allows some products to avoid labels if the cancer-causing chemical is produced in the manufacturing process and not something that can be removed.
The fact that the levels of acrylamide are trace also helps to support this argument. Starbucks has been at the center of this case since 2010. They have lost two rounds in court and are currently fighting in the highest state court.
Coffee is not the only product that scientists have found to contain acrylamide. This is only one of the list of 900 chemicals in the crosshairs of lawyers in the state. This one compound has lead to labels being forced upon random snack products like french fries and potato chips.
The chemical was discovered in things like coffee dating back to 2002. This was not a part of the original 1986 act because it was not known at the time. It seems unfair to enforce a law that coffee sellers and other retailers had no way to know they needed to comply in the first place. The state continues to add chemicals to the list and fuel lawyers to find new and creative ways to sue larger chains.
While the lawyers argue these type of labels save lives, many in California are fed up with the abuses of the law. The tags are popping up everywhere, and for the most part, consumers ignore them. According to a report about the overuse of the law:
“Under a state law, cancer warnings already follow Californians when they enter the lobby of apartment buildings, drive into parking garages and sit down at restaurants. They also pop up on products including kitty litter, ceramic plates and black licorice.”