In the 12 days since a California court ruled that coffee sellers in the state must post cancer warnings in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, commonly known as “Proposition 65”, mainstream media has been abuzz.
While the vast majority of reports have noted the lack of scientific evidence linking coffee to cancer, that kind of widespread publicity naturally creates more questions than answers. Such is the nature of the 24-hour news cycle, in which many people can’t afford the time to read beyond the headlines. So as the two big Cs of coffee and cancer have shared the public stage, a third big C has swept over the audience: confusion.
For those people, we can turn to science for answers, concluding that there is no clear link between coffee and cancer, that coffee consumption can dramatically reduce the risk of certain cancers, that coffee consumption may actually be part of a healthy lifestyle, that coffee is proven to stave off death from all causes — and the list goes on. In fact, most of the scientific research being conducted these days is focused not on if coffee is good for you, but how.
Unfortunately, consumers are not alone in their confusion regarding the latest ruling. In understanding and complying with state law, coffee roasters and retail sellers are sharing some confusion of their own, no matter how confident they may be that their products pose no known cancer risk.
Representing membership from the biggest coffee companies in the United States, including many explicitly named as defendants in the original 2010 lawsuit upon which the latest tentative ruling was rendered, the National Coffee Association has been a leading lobbying group on behalf of the industry in this particular battle.
We reached out to NCA President and CEO William “Bill” Murray, posing many of the questions that coffee business owners have been sending our way since the latest tentative court ruling in California.
DCN: What does the ruling mean for retail coffee sellers in California?
WM: First, it is important to note that this is but one more step in a long legal process — one that is going to continue into the future. Retailers, and roasters, will have to decide if they are going to apply labels as the legal process continues.
Coffee companies rely on packaging and visual cues to sell product, and a “cancer warning” — especially when coffee has been shown to help prevent some cancers — can only confuse coffee drinkers.
However, over the last 30 years “Prop 65” warnings have become ubiquitous in California at retail establishments, offices, on merchandise labels, and even nationally via online retailers, which may be desensitizing consumers to the messages.
Can you explain Prop 65 in terms of how it relates to various components of coffee? To water? To acrylamide? To roasted coffee? To brewed coffee?
The Prop 65 legislation requires companies to provide “cancer warning labels” to alert consumers to the presence of chemicals that the State of California has listed as carcinogenic. In the case of roasted coffee, that means acrylamide: a heat-formed chemical compound that is a natural byproduct of the roasting process — it is not added to coffee. In fact, the amount of acrylamide in coffee is miniscule.
But coffee is more than acrylamide — just like it’s more than caffeine. Coffee consists of hundreds of unique chemical compounds, a lot of antioxidants, and more flavor notes than wine. Most importantly, it has a host of potential health benefits supported by an overwhelming amount of independent, peer-reviewed research — it’s great for your liver, may help prevent diabetes, and even reduces the risk of some cancers.
What does the ruling mean for roasters in California and in other states who are not retailers?
Roasters and retailers both have options, and each will have to decide if they will use labels. While Prop 65 legislation is only applicable in California, companies that do business in the State will have to consider the impact of shipping products labeled for California to neighboring States.
Does the ruling apply to roasters selling to California consumers out of state?
Again, if a roaster is selling in California — where Prop 65 is applicable — they are subject to Prop 65 requirements, but as with in-state roasters, they will have to decide what they will do.
Consumers are already confused about their coffee consumption, despite what we’ve learned as an industry. Studies show that coffee has potential health benefits. Yet, the latest National Coffee Drinking Trends data shows that 69 percent of consumers report that they do not know about coffee’s benefit on reducing illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.
There is already a clear disconnect between the scientific evidence and public perception. The Prop 65 labels will further confuse consumers, and may even deter people from making healthy choices.
What might this mean to smaller roasters/retailers in California?
Unfortunately, this will impact them as well, and they will have to use what resources they have to formulate a plan and, if they decide to label, absorb the costs of changing their packaging and signage.
What are the specific steps required for compliance currently?
It’s still too early to tell what is going to happen next. The latest Prop 65 ruling is far from final, and the legal process will likely drag out for years. After an initial period of comment, there will be a phase of establishing fines and penalties, inevitably followed by more appeals. The coffee industry will continue to fight the decision, with the support of the scientific community. Not only is it bad for business, but more importantly, it’s bad for consumers. It creates more confusion around real health threats, and not just imaginary ones.
Unfortunately, this means that companies need to make a judgement call in the meantime, before knowing the real outcome — to label or not? The NCA is currently working on resources to help our members navigate this conversation internally.
(Editor’s note: A previous reference to the “legislative process” has been changed to the “legal process.”)
Nick Brown is the editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. Feedback and story ideas are welcome. See the "About Us" page located at the bottom of this site for contact information.