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California's Cancerous Coffee Nonsense

If you have ever visited California, you have probably encountered the warning labels that appear on everything from seaweed to soft drinks, informing you that they contain “dangerous” ingredients that might cause cancer or birth defects. State law requires food manufacturers put the label on products that contain any one of 900 chemicals supposedly linked to such risks. Now a state judge may add coffee to the ever-growing list of “risky” products. Such a decision might finally wake residents to the fact that the overly cautious warnings are nothing more than a boondoggle. 

California voters approved Proposition 65 back in 1986, requiring warning labels for products containing chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer or birth defects.” One of the chemicals is acrylamide, a naturally occurring chemical compound. While present in many raw foods, acrylamide is also produced when foods that contain both starch and amino acids (e.g. potatoes, grains, meat, and beans) are heated to high temperatures. As a result, products like French fries, roasted potatoes, toast, and now coffee contain levels of the chemical above California’s allowed limit.

The problem is that the evidence linking many of the 900 chemicals to risk is slim to none. The level of acrylamide in coffee, for example, is between five and 361 parts per billion. The best evidence that acrylamide might cause cancer comes from animal studies, in which rats exposed to very high levels of the chemical—1,000 to 100,000 times greater than the amount a human would ever be exposed to via food—had an increased tumor risk.

As Ruth Kava, senior nutrition advisor for the American Council for Science and Health, recently wrote:

Yes, acrylamide is a known  neurotoxin, and people working with it in industrial settings must be protected from exposure. But ever since 2002 when Swedish researchers unexpectedly discovered it in foods, there’s been an incessant drumbeat about the chemical also being a carcinogen—even though there have been no indications that it causes cancer in people.

Furthermore, coffee consumption of three to five cups per day is associated with net health benefits, including reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in the U.S.). But  California’s law does not care about either the relative risks posed by the tiny amounts of acrylamide in coffee or the net risk versus the net benefits.

What the law has done is provide a new opportunity to extract money from California businesses. Environmental and health groups have taken advantage of the fact that anyone can sue a business in an attempt to force them to carry a Prop 65 warning. In 2008 alone, lawyers settled 199 Prop 65 cases, netting them more than $14 million in fees and the state $4.6 million in civil penalties.

As a result, the warnings are just about everywhere. The thresholds are so low that businesses like supermarkets and even apartment buildings have simply taken to posting Prop 65 warnings to cover the entire business. This doesn’t help people avoid risk, but merely tells them that risks are everywhere and unavoidable.

On the bright side, that last message is true: Every decision we makes involves balancing some risk against potential rewards. Even choosing not to do anything carries some risk. Hopefully, the increasing ubiquity of California’s cancer warnings will wake residents to the fact that when it comes to risk assessments they—not their overly cautious government—are the only ones capable of deciding which risks are worth taking and which ought to be avoided. It is a shame  businesses in the Golden State must pay the cost to teach this lesson.