The Food and Drug Administration is trying to stop the state of California from going ahead and abiding with a controversial court decision, one that would mandate coffee sold in the state come with a label warning people it could cause cancer.
Since 1986, California has had a law that demands companies selling any products deemed to be carcinogenic by the state to include a warning label. This law is informally known as Proposition 65, named after the voter initiative that ushered it into existence.
In 2010, the nonprofit Council for Education and Research on Toxics filed a lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court against major coffee retailers operating in the state, including Starbucks and 7-Eleven. The organization argued roasted coffee should be considered a Prop 65 product, since it contains a suspected carcinogen called acrylamide, meaning that coffee shops needed to attach a warning label. Following years of legal back-and-forth, including settlements made with some companies, the court ultimately ruled in favor of the nonprofit this past March.
Public health experts and agencies, however, have been understandably aghast about the legal decision, including the FDA.
It’s true acrylamide is found in many foods that are baked, roasted, or fried as a trace byproduct, including coffee. And it’s true that in high enough doses, acrylamide might be carcinogenic, at least based on animal studies. But, as even the World Health Organization has found, there’s no good evidence coffee itself can cause cancer. And there isn’t any good evidence we even get enough acrylamide from our food or coffee for it to be a health risk.
On Wednesday, FDA chief Scott Gottlieb issued a statement, laying out these same facts. He also issued a warning of what might happen if California complied with the court decision.
“Simply put, if a state law purports to require food labeling to include a false or misleading statement, the FDA may decide to step in,” he said, arguing that any such coffee label would violate federal law.
The agency’s show of force follows a move by the state itself to avoid the label. In June, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), the agency that oversees Prop 65 enforcement, proposed a regulation that would exempt coffee from the law. The FDA also announced Wednesday that it had sent a letter of support to OEHHA, backing their proposed regulation. At this point, though, it’s unclear if and when this regulation will become a reality.
The FDA has tangled with California about acrylamide before. In 2003 and 2006, the agency sent out letters to the state, arguing whole grain breakfast cereals containing acrylamide did not merit a warning label, and any label would only discourage people from eating foods that could, ironically, lower their cancer risk (the same might even apply to coffee).
In July of this year, following a similarly protracted legal battle, a California appeals court ruled that cereal companies didn’t need to adopt a label after all.