FDA: California coffee cancer warnings 'mislead' consumers

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said this week it is “deeply concerned” with a recent court ruling that required California coffee makers to add a cancer warning label to their products.

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A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled last March that coffee companies had to disclose the presence of acrylamide, a chemical byproduct of coffee beans that has been linked to cancer. However, the FDA argued that, based on current science, the warning labels are “more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them.”

While acrylamide is produced when coffee beans are roasted, it does not materialize at levels high enough to pose a significant cancer risk, the FDA said, citing a report by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. The agency added that it supports a proposal that would exempt coffee makers from Proposition 65, the measure under which the labels are required.

“We’ve taken this position because we too have carefully reviewed the most current research on coffee and cancer and it does not support a cancer warning for coffee,” the FDA said. “In fact, as our letter to California states, such a warning could mislead consumers to believe that drinking coffee could be dangerous to their health when it actually could provide health benefits.”

Judge Elihu Berle sided with the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a nonprofit that pushed for the warning label, ruling that coffee industry leaders, including Starbucks, had failed to prove that coffee consumption has health benefits. The nonprofit, the judge said, succeeded in providing evidence that coffee consumption could be harmful.

Proposition 65, which is also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, requires California companies to disclose any ingredients that have been linked to cancer or birth defects.

The National Coffee Association commended the FDA’s stance on the issue in a statement to NPR.

"Now that science has so comprehensively established the facts on coffee, we believe it is incumbent on regulators to give citizens confidence in what they are consuming," Bill Murray, the association’s president and CEO, said.