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Judge: Starbucks, coffee sellers must put cancer warning on California coffee

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Judge: Starbucks, coffee sellers must put cancer warning on California coffee

Starbucks Corp., 7-Eleven Inc., Dunkin' Brands Group Inc. and other coffee sellers must warn consumers of the cancer risk from their hot beverages, a California judge ruled March 28 — a ruling the companies may appeal.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elihu Berle said in a "proposed" decision handed down March 28 that the companies named in the lawsuit failed to show that the benefits of coffee outweigh any potential health risks associated with an alleged carcinogen released when coffee is roasted, according to court documents.

The ruling, which stemmed from a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court eight years ago by a nonprofit group claiming that coffee contains a carcinogen, would require the companies involved to post labels warning of the risk to California consumers purchasing their java.

The suit named Starbucks as the primary defendant along with nearly 70 other defendants, including grocery stores and big-box sellers such as Albertsons Cos. Inc., Target Corp., Walmart Inc. and Kraft Foods Global Inc., a unit of Kraft Heinz Co.

Responding to the ruling, the National Coffee Association, a coffee lobbying group representing several major U.S. coffee sellers, said cancer warning labels on coffee would be "misleading," due to studies that it says show evidence of the health benefits of coffee. The group said it is considering an appeal of the ruling and "further legal actions."

The coffee sellers have until April 10 to appeal the ruling.

"Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage," William Murray, the trade group's president and CEO, said in a March 29 statement. "This lawsuit has ... confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health."

The group cited a 2015 study by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that "found no conclusive evidence for a carcinogenic effect of drinking coffee" following a study on the hot beverage.

The lawsuit was originally filed in April 2010 in California Superior Court in Los Angeles County's Central District by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a California-based nonprofit, alleging that the coffee sellers exposed California consumers to high levels of acrylamide, a toxic chemical that they say is created during the brewing process of the ready-to-drink coffee they serve.

The suit was filed under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, or Proposition 65, a law passed in California in 1986 allowing for citizens and groups to file civil lawsuits against entities who they believe to be violators, which can then result in warning labels to consumers should they be found guilty of the allegations.

Berle sided with the nonprofit group in his ruling.

"Since defendants failed to prove that coffee confers any human health benefits, defendants have failed to satisfy their burden of proving that sound considerations of public health support an alternate risk level for acrylamide in coffee," Berle wrote in the ruling.

Starbucks and Target declined to comment on the case when contacted by S&P Global Market Intelligence, and two other major companies named in the lawsuit did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the California Attorney General's office, businesses that violate Proposition 65 are subject to penalties of $2,500 per day for each violation.