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California Court to Decide Whether Coffee May Cause Cancer


Raphael Metzger and Kenneth Holdren, of The Metzger Law Group, are currently engaged in a bench trial in a Proposition 65 action against several major coffee companies including Starbucks, Peet's Coffee & Tea, and Seattle Coffee Co. In Council for Education and Research on Toxics v. Starbuck Corp., et al. (Super. Ct. L.A. County, No. BC435759), Judge Elihu M. Berle must decide whether coffee contains unsafe levels of acrylamide, a chemical compound that has been found to naturally occur in foods such as black olives, prunes, potato chips, and coffee.

The plaintiff, Council for Education and Research on Toxics ("CERT"), is seeking to require coffee companies to provide "consumers cancer hazard warnings regarding acrylamide in coffee or to reduce the acrylamide content of their coffee products to safe levels." The Metzger Law Group initially filed the lawsuit in 2010, naming several companies within the chain of distribution ranging from the coffee manufacturer to coffee shops.

Although some smaller coffee companies settled, companies such as Starbucks opted to take the matter to trial to defend against the claim that the presence of acrylamide in their coffee products poses a significant cancer risk. In doing so, Starbucks and the other defendants bear the burden of proof of showing that the acrylamide level in their coffee products exposure is low enough to pose no significant risk of cancer. That is, these defendants must show that a consumer exposed to the acrylamide in their coffee products for 70 years would not have more than a "one in 100,000" chance of developing cancer as a result of that exposure.

Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, is a "right to know" law approved by California voters in 1986. The Act requires California to maintain a list of chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Companies doing business in California are required to provide warnings to consumers before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a listed chemical. Enforcement of the Act is done by the California Attorney General, county district attorneys, and certain city attorneys. However, private citizens may also file civil suits against businesses that are alleged to be in violation of the Act. Penalties for violating the Act can be as high as $2,500 per violation per day.

CERT is a California public benefit corporation formed in 2001 "whose charitable purposes are education and research regarding toxic substances." Notably, in addition to representing CERT, Mr. Metzger is also the agent for service of process for CERT.

Trial is anticipated to be completed in October 2014.

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