Coffee lovers in California could soon be jolted awake by a cancer warning displayed in all coffee chains, grocers and other retail store locations. While scientific studies have shown a “cup of joe” can reduce the risk of many diseases, including certain cancers and type 2 diabetes, scientists have also determined that roasted coffee poses a cancer risk.

Under the California law commonly known as Proposition 65, companies are required to post a warning or label products containing any chemical at levels known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Due to the formation of acrylamide in roasted coffee, a consumer advocacy group filed a lawsuit in 2010 to require all manufacturers, distributors and retailers to post a warning label on coffee products sold in California. The acrylamide lawsuit has taken center stage recently, but food and beverage companies should be aware of additional chemicals that were recently added or likely to be soon added to the list of chemicals that fall under Proposition 65.

What is Proposition 65?

Proposition 65 is a California law requiring “clear and reasonable” warning labels on products containing chemicals determined by the state to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) manages the list of more than 900 naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals found in a broad range of products, including food and beverage products.

The OEHHA has established ‘Safe Harbor’ levels for roughly 30% of the listed chemicals, which are based on the “anticipated rate of intake or exposure” by “average users.” The safe harbor levels are established as a No Significant Risk Level (NSRL) for carcinogenic substances or as a Maximum Allowable Dose Level (MADL) for chemicals associated with reproductive harm. In some cases, companies can obtain a ‘naturally occurring’ exemption from the labeling requirement if a chemical is proven to be a “natural constituent’ of a product and not added as a result of any human activity, including manufacturing or pollution.

Last year, the OEHHA revised the Proposition 65 requirements. Under the new rules, the warning statements must identify at least one chemical for each risk (cancer and/or reproductive toxicity) by August 30, 2018. The 2016 amendment also established specific instructions for various exposure scenarios, including food and alcoholic beverages sold at retail stores or within restaurants.  Manufacturers, producers, packagers, importers, suppliers or distributors are responsible for providing the warnings.

Coffee and Acrylamide

Acrylamide is a natural byproduct of the coffee roasting process and also forms during the high-temperature cooking of certain carbohydrate-rich foods, including potato-based foods and cereal foods, such as cookies, crackers, etc.   

The lawsuit filed by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) suggested that retailers had violated California law by selling coffee containing acrylamide levels exceeding the Proposition 65 safe harbor level. However, since acrylamide is a natural byproduct of coffee roasting, the coffee industry has suggested the ‘naturally occurring’ exemption rule should apply to coffee.

While some retailers have voluntarily posted acrylamide warnings for coffee, the plaintiffs in this case claim the warnings are displayed after the point of sale. In September, the final stage of the court case resumed in California and a final decision is expected soon.

Recently Added Chemicals

In recent years, several chemicals were listed in California Proposition 65 that impact the food industry, including glyphosate (2017), furfuryl alcohol (2016), and bisphenol A (2015).

Glyphosate is an herbicide routinely applied to agricultural commodities, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, wheat, oats, barley, fruits, vegetables and nuts. The discovery of glyphosate residues in various honey and oat products has prompted several lawsuits involving food products labeled as “natural” but containing the pesticide residue.

Furfuryl Alcohol (FFA) is a chemical formed in foods during thermal processing, including foods such as coffee, baked goods and fruit juices. This chemical is formed during cooking and as a result of the dehydration of sugars in cooked foods.

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical migration risk associated with various polycarbonate beverage bottles and a component in metal can coatings. Currently, California retailers are required to post point-of-sale warnings for canned and bottled foods and beverages.  

Chemicals to Watch

Later this year, the OEHHA committees responsible for evaluating the cancer and reproductive risks of chemicals will convene to evaluate several chemicals related to the food industry. Listed below are a few examples.

Chlorpyrifos is a pesticide commonly detected in agricultural commodities. This chemical will be evaluated as a potential risk for reproductive toxicity.

n-Hexane is a solvent used to extract oils and other fat-soluble chemicals from food. This chemical is a potential reproductive or birth defect risk.

Coumarin is a naturally occurring chemical in some plants, including cassia cinnamon. Coumarin will be considered as a potential carcinogen.

Aspartame was considered for the Proposition 65 list during a November 2016 meeting of the Carcinogen Identification Committee (CIC), but the committee decided to categorize aspartame as a medium/high priority for future consideration. The low-calorie artificial sweetener is commonly used worldwide as a sugar substitute and flavor enhancer in foods and beverages, but public health advocates have challenged the safety of the sweetener for decades.

In summary, Proposition 65 is a state law with the potential to impact consumer product labeling at the national level. To comply with this law, companies must evaluate all suppliers, ingredients, reaction by-products and packaging migration hazards associated with their products.

Mérieux NutriSciences provides analytical testing services to ensure the quality of your products against a full spectrum of food contaminants, including Acrylamide and Glyphosate. Our experts can test in a full range of matrices, including cereals, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, dairy, fat and beverages. Ensure the safety of your products as well as compliance with Prop 65 and other regulations by testing your products now.


Meet the Author

Patrick Kennedy
Information Services Manager, Mérieux NutriSciences

Patrick Kennedy is the Information Services Manager for Mérieux NutriSciences. He has over 15 years of food industry experience and has written extensively covering a wide range of food safety and regulatory subjects. He holds a MS degree in information science from the University of Illinois, and is a member of several industry organizations including AOAC, IFT and IAFP.

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