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FDA blasts Calif. plan to put cancer warnings on coffee cups

Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants found a formidable ally Wednesday in their struggle to keep cancer warnings off cups of coffee sold in California: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb urged California officials yesterday to exempt hot coffee from a 32-year-old requirement that consumer products containing a carcinogen be flagged as potential health risks. The law mandates the items carry an alert akin to the warnings on packs of cigarettes.

Because potentially cancer-causing substances called acrylamides can form in coffee at high temperatures, health advocates have lobbied state officials to require the warnings on coffee cups. In March, a judge ruled in a case brought against Starbucks, Peet’s Coffee and other restaurant chains that the warnings are indeed required under Proposition 65.

A few months later, California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recommended that coffee be exempted from Prop 65, citing the lack of a clear connection between consumption and cancer. The matter remains in limbo.

Gottlieb came out strongly in favor of the exemption, declaring in an official statement from the FDA that “a cancer warning on coffee, based on the presence of acrylamide, would be more likely to mislead consumers than to inform them.” 

“We’ve taken this position because we too have carefully reviewed the most current research on coffee and cancer and it does not support a cancer warning for coffee,” Gottlieb said in the statement. “Such a warning could mislead consumers to believe that drinking coffee could be dangerous to their health when it actually could provide health benefits.”

He cited research findings from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services that three to five cups of coffee per day can be consumed by an adult with virtually no health risks.

Gottlieb, who holds a doctorate in medicine, said he has sent a letter to the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment that declares the support of him and his agency.

States’ health policies and regulations are seldom questioned or criticized by federal regulators, with the legalization of medical marijuana being a major exception. Typically, the national government issues model policies or laws that states adapt or copy outright.

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