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The state of California is expected to carve out an exemption for coffee in legislation that would have required companies to label it as carcinogenic.

A public hearing held on 16 August 2018 by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the lead state agency that implements controversial Proposition 65 legislation, took evidence on a regulation proposed by OEHHA that stated that exposure to chemicals in coffee pose no significant risk to health. The agency set a 30 August 2018 deadline for written comments.

The hearing followed a June 2018 ‘statement of reasons’ by OEHHA, proposing to add a new section to Title 27 of the California Code of Regulations, section 25704, stating that exposure to chemicals listed in Proposition 65 that are produced as part of, and inherent in, the processes of roasting and brewing coffee ‘pose no significant risk of cancer.’

The statement of reasons said that ‘no cancer warning would be required for exposures to these chemicals if this proposed regulation is adopted.’

OEHHA’s action in June followed a ruling earlier this year by a judge in Los Angeles that Starbucks and other coffee companies involved in lawsuits brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics had failed to warn customers about acrylamide in coffee.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said the companies “had failed to prove that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.” He said this despite the vast preponderance of scientific evidence suggesting that coffee consumption is part of a healthy lifestyle, and there is no evidence that coffee is carcinogenic. In fact, the bulk of recent independent studies suggest that coffee may have some role in preventing certain cancers.

The judge’s decision raised questions about whether legislation intended to ensure that consumers are informed about what is in the food and drink they consume is being used wisely or as originally intended.

The American Cancer Society said many, many studies had examined whether people who consume products containing acrylamide might be at increased risk of certain cancers, and most have not found any increased risk.

In July 2018, the judge said that before entering an injunction requiring labelling on coffee, he would entertain arguments by Starbucks and other coffee companies that the rule being considered by OEHHA would make the warnings unnecessary.

Lawyers at Hogans Lovell said OEHHA’s action was significant because, if adopted, it would effectively exempt coffee products from Proposition 65.

OEHHA has 12 months from the date that the proposed rule was announced to decide whether or not it will actually be adopted, and if so, in what form (as proposed or amended.)

After the hearing, a spokesperson from OEHHA was quoted in an article in the Los Angeles Times as saying that the rule could be adopted as early as November.

“I would say that we are cautiously optimistic that this rule, which reflects the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence on coffee and health, will be adopted,” Bill Murray, President of the National Coffee Association, told C&CI.

For more information see the forthcoming September 2018 issue of Coffee & Cocoa International.

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