Lawsuit would force Calif. coffee shops to display cancer warning

By  | 

DAVIS, Calif. (CBS) A new lawsuit may soon force coffee shops in California to warn you about a possible cancer risk linked to your morning cup of java.

Most people brew coffee for the jolt. UC Davis chemical engineering professor Bill Ristenpart does it for the science in each cup. "There are lots of different chemical reactions which take place," he said.

Ristenpart recently testified to the health benefits of those chemical reactions. He served as an expert witness in a coffee case that seeks to declare java unhealthy, and require labels warning of the potential cancer risks in the grounds.

"To have a warning label because of these trace molecules that are out-weighed by the positive molecules there you could deter people from drinking coffee," Ristenpart said.

What's in question? A chemical known as acrylimide. It forms when coffee roasters take green coffee seeds and turn them into delicious brown ones.

"Moderation is the key to life, and I think people should take that into consideration when making changes that affect people's lives," said Valerie Zimmerman, a coffee drinker.

A California judge may decide how to implement those changes. The lawsuit cites the Safe Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. The state law orders businesses and public places to post warnings on anything potentially harmful to one's health. Should coffee shops be next?

"Sure. I think for transparency it could be on there, but maybe we need to look at the way we're roasting it," Zimmerman said.

Attorneys also want coffee companies to reduce the amount of the chemical acrylamide to the point where there would be no significant risk.

Dr. Ristenpart doesn't think that's necessary. "Bread has acrylimide, cookies have acrylimide, asparagus -- if you cook it -- has acrylimide. So we could slap a warning label on everything.