Does Coffee Cause Cancer? California Judge Rules Companies Must Include Warning Label

Companies selling coffee in California must post cancer warning labels, according to the ruling of a Los Angeles judge on Wednesday.

Elihu Berle, a state Superior Court judge, said coffee companies had failed to demonstrate that there was no significant risk from a by-product of the coffee bean roasting process known as acrylamide, the Associated Press reported.

This chemical, which is present in high levels in brewed coffee, potentially increases the risk of developing cancer in consumers.

The latest ruling comes after a not-for profit group called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) filed a lawsuit against some 90 coffee retailers—including Starbucks and other big chains—saying that they were in breach of a California law that requires companies to warn consumers of carcinogens in their products.

The coffee companies have until April 10 to raise any objections to the ruling. The industry is considering potential appeals to the decision as well as further legal action, according to the National Coffee Association (NCA).

"Cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading," an NCA statement said. "The U.S. government's own dietary guidelines state that coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle. The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that coffee does not cause cancer. Study after study has provided evidence of the health benefits of drinking coffee, including longevity—coffee drinkers live longer."

Coffee could soon come with a cancer warning in California after a new ruling from a Los Angeles judge. INTI OCON/AFP/Getty Images

The lawsuit, which was filed by CERT in 2010, called for fines of up to $2,500 per person for each instance of exposure to acrylamide in any of the retailer's California stores. Given the size of the state's population, the companies could potentially be exposed to huge fines, although this massive figure is unlikely to be imposed. Any civil penalties will be decided in a third stage of the trial.

Following the initial two stages, Berle ruled that the "defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving by a preponderance of evidence that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health," as quoted by Reuters.

Around a dozen of the defendants had already settled before Wednesday's ruling, according to CERT's attorney Raphael Metzger, and have agreed to carry warnings about the chemical and pay millions in fines.