Toxic Torts: Coffee Industry May have Cleared One Hurdle to Come Across Another

In April of this year, Poole & Shaffery updated readers on the status of California’s bellwether coffee exposure case brought by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (“CERT”) against more than 90 coffee roasters and retailers. The plaintiffs, led by Raphael Metzger of the Metzger Law Group, allege that the acrylamide contained in the defendants’ coffee poses a risk of causing cancer in consumers. At that juncture, Hon. Elihu Berle ruled that Starbucks, and other coffee roasters and retailers, had failed to show that the benefits of drinking coffee outweighed the risks of cancer, and failed to establish that the threat from the chemical was insignificant. (See Council for Education and Research on Toxics v. Starbucks Corp., et al. [Super. Ct. L.A. County, No. BC435759].)

In a turn of events, on June 15, 2018, California health officials proposed a regulation that would declare coffee as not presenting a significant cancer risk. The announced proposal would counter Judge Berle’s ruling and would be a win for the coffee industry, which faces potential penalties of up to $2,500.00 per person, per daily exposure, dating back to the start of the suit eight years ago.

The proposed regulation comes in the wake of a new review of more than 1,000 studies, published by the World Health Organization (“WHO”), that found inadequate evidence that coffee causes cancer.

The win for the coffee industry may be short lived, however, given preliminary findings by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), which indicate there are widespread problems across the coffee industry that jeopardize employee health. Studies show that coffee industry workers are exposed to more than four or five times the recommended level of diacetyl, a dangerous compound known for rapidly destroying lungs. The CDC also found dozens of workers with abnormal breathing tests and workplaces where cases of respiratory illness were more than twice the rate found in the general population – a discovery that suggests ties to worksite environments.

The CDC’s inquiry followed a 2015 investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that exposed how naturally occurring diacetyl and 2, 3-pentane-dione endanger the roughly 750,000 coffee operations workers in the U.S. The investigation also detailed how five workers at a Texas roasting facility became ill from a serious, and sometimes fatal, lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.

The agency is due to release nine more reports in the coming months and is aggregating the data from 20 facilities and more than 450 workers involved in the study to pinpoint job tasks that are associated with the most harm.

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