Starbucks, McDonald’s, and other purveyors of coffee in California could soon be forced to pay astronomical penalties and post cancer warning signs in every location, if a verdict in a little-noticed class-action lawsuit goes against them.
According to an Associated Press story:
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.…
A verdict in favor of the little-known Council for Education and Research on Toxics [CERT] 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.”
Proposition 65 — also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 — established a growing list of substances “known” to cause cancer, and allows private individuals or groups to bring a “private right of action” in civil court against businesses that expose customers to anything on the list, however, obscure. A professional “nuisance lawsuit” industry has emerged whereby unscrupulous lawyers target unsuspecting business owners and threaten them into court unless they “pay up.”
Several companies have already paid up and agreed to post signs in all their locations. The AP reports that “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.”
Civil penalties in the coffee case could run as high as $2,500 per person per exposure. Since most people drink coffee every day, that would mean $2500 per person per day, and with penalties reaching back eight years. That could add up to an astronomical bill in a state with close to 40 million residents, though most court watchers consider a number that to be highly unlikely.
Starbucks Corporation is the lead defendant, but so far has not commented publicly on the case. The burden is on the defense to prove “no significant risk posed by acrylamide in coffee.” Thus far, in the first phase of the 2010 case, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle says the defense has failed to provide sufficient evidence that acrylamide is harmless at the level present in coffee.
Defense lawyers believe they willll prevail under an exemption clause for “chemicals that result naturally from cooking necessary for palatability or to avoid microbiological contamination.”
But online food news Grub Street warns that
[w]hile it’s true even prominent toxicologists believe CERT’s case is “totally absurd” — some studies show you’d have to drink “over 100 cups of coffee a day” to hit a dangerous dose — California’s been unkind to food manufacturers whose products contain acrylamide: Frito-Lay, Heinz, Lance, and other potato-chip-makers settled a separate lawsuit in 2008 in which they agreed to pay $3 million and reduce acrylamide levels in their products.