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Starbucks Coffee Relies on Expert Witnesses to Dispute Cancer Lawsuit

The Starbucks Empire is facing a legal challenge from a group of activists in California who claim that the company’s coffee has sufficient carcinogens to cause cancer in consumers. The trial has become a battle of expert witnesses, and both sides will present an array of experts whose testimony will ultimately determine if Starbucks will need to add a warning label for its California consumers.

Starbucks Sued in California

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) is a non-profit activist group comprised of attorneys and consultants which has earned a reputation challenging large companies over levels of alleged carcinogens in food or beverage. CERT’s primary focus is the compound acrylamide, which is on the radar of health officials as a potential carcinogen, particularly prevalent in fried potato products. Although no study has directly linked acrylamide present in foods to increased cancer rates, companies selling products in California have been forced to reduce the amount of acrylamide in order to avoid issuing a warning label to consumers.

CERT has immersed itself in the acrylamide litigation, most notably when the organization initiated a 6-year legal campaign against McDonalds and Burger King in 2002, which resulted in a change in food preparation and warnings issued to consumers. The primary legal vehicle for CERT is California’s Proposition 65, a 1986 law that prevents any from company from knowingly exposing consumers to certain quantities of carcinogens without providing clear and reasonable warning.  Just as it did in its lawsuit against McDonalds and Burger King, CERT used the provisions of Proposition 65 to file a lawsuit against Starbucks by alleging the company’s coffee contains harmful levels of toxic acrylamide.

CERT has requested LA Superior Court Judge Elihu M. Berle to force Starbucks to either implement coffee preparation procedures to reduce the amount of acrylamide present, or provide warning labels that alert consumers of the compound’s presence. Starbucks has responded to the lawsuit by arguing that forcing the company to add a warning label is unconstitutional forced speech, that CERT’s Prop 65 claim is invalid because the issue is controlled by federal law, and, that the levels of acrylamide present in the coffee do not pose a significant risk to consumers. It is the latter point regarding the potential harm to consumers that expert witnesses will debate as the trial unfolds.

Medical Experts Dispute Carcinogen Levels in Starbucks Coffee

CERT’s complaint, which includes claims against 7-Eleven Inc. and Seattle Coffee Co., alleges that Starbucks and other companies sell coffee that violates Prop 65 by containing from 4 – 100 times more acrylamide than the “no significant risk level” set by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Last July, CERT’s request to receive a judgment without trial was dismissed with Judge Berle saying the matter would come down to expert witness testimony regarding the threat of cancer posed by Starbucks coffee.

Starbucks presented expert witness toxicologist Dr. F. Jay Murray to testify that the levels of acrylamide in its coffee is not a threat, and that the other compounds within the drink neutralize the presence of acrylamide to the point that no warning label is required. Dr. Murray opined that the best way to evaluate the risk of acrylamide in Starbucks coffee was to consider the impact of the coffee itself on the compound.  Saying that CERT’s focus on acrylamide was too narrow, Dr. Murray argued that there are over 1,000 chemicals in coffee that could influence the compound’s impact.

Starbucks also called Dr. Paolo Boffetta, former head of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) genetic epidemiology group and a Harvard professor, to testify that several scientific studies demonstrate no link between coffee consumption and cancer. Dr. Boffetta dismissed the notion that the presence of acrylamide, or another other chemical, in coffee posed a cancer risk to consumers, and supported his opinion by referencing several studies from across the medical research community.

CERT attorney Raphael Metzger challenged both experts on cross examination with pointed questions about the impact of acrylamide specifically, which he hoped would bring the focus of the lawsuit back to the compound he and CERT have targeted throughout. Judge Berle will continue to hear arguments on the matter, and will likely issue a ruling in the coming weeks.