Californian coffee drinkers may soon be confronted with a warning label next time they purchase their morning coffee – at least if an ongoing lawsuit alleging the popular beverage to contain harmful amounts of acrylamide has its way. The substance, a side-product of frying or roasting foods, was classified as a “probable carcinogen” by the International Institute for the Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2002 based on tests in mice. However, since then, IARC’s evaluation methods have come under intense criticism for other substances, so much so that the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology will be holding a hearing on February 6 to judge the institute’s scientific integrity.

Both acrylamide and glyphosate are listed on California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65, which insists that businesses give customers “clear and reasonable warning” about the presence of health-damaging agents in their products. The list is dominated by products that have been deemed carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to consumers – not by health professionals, but by activists, lobbyists and judges.

Since its passage nearly thirty-two years ago, Prop 65 has been the subject of widespread criticism, not least because the legal aspects of the food labelling requirements often trump actual medical assessments by legitimate health professionals. As a result of the law, warning labels have been slapped on many everyday items, from flip-flops to sunglasses to grills. An additional consequence has been the increased risk to retailers of being sued, harassed by especially concerned citizens entitled to a cut of the fines paid by businesses caught neglecting the bill.

While it is easy to land on the list, fighting against Prop 65 lawsuits is an arduous process. Firms must prove that their product does not in fact contain any of the nearly 900 chemicals listed by the roster, or that its presence is in amounts too negligible to pose a risk to consumers. Even if the case ends in success for the retailer, the costs of arranging product testing and attorney fees are a major drain on a firm’s resources. Most opt to settle out of court- and adopt a warning label.

Naturally, the validity of the existing roster is highly disputed. And the acrylamide lawsuit, filed by the activist Council for Education and Research on Toxics, is but the latest in a string of incidents that highlight the absurdity of Prop 65. Californian coffee retailers have been fighting the by-association classification of coffee being carcinogenic for years, and for good reason. The link to cancer is purely based on IARC tests on rodents, but even then, acrylamide’s carcinogenicity was tenuous. In fact, human studies have failed to establish a concrete connection between cancer in humans and ingestion of acrylamide time and again.

Far from denying the presence of acrylamide in their products, the coffee industry insists that the chemical can only be found in negligible doses, and is far outweighed by the proven health benefits of the drink. Indeed, coffee has been celebrated by researchers over the years for its role in lowering the risk of heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and even some cancers, including prostate cancer. Doctors are even rallying against the use of warning labels on coffee, arguing that the signs only serve to detract from legitimate cancer warnings. Against this backdrop, forcing sellers to attach warning labels on coffee cups is akin to committing false speech by alleging a risk that is scientifically inaccurate.

The patterns in the newly instigated debate about acrylamide are not new. In fact, they mirror those in the dispute about glyphosate, a widely used herbicide. The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) placed the substance on the Prop 65 list last year based on findings in an International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) monograph. This happened despite widespread uncertainty over the evidence behind IARC’s claims. Since it publication in 2015, evidence that IARC scientists widely manipulated the monograph before its publication has been piling up. These accusations weigh so heavy that lawmakers in Washington DC have scheduled a House Committee hearing that directly investigates IARC’s methodology and credibility as a scientific institution.

The levee of evidence broke in 2017 when successive Reuters investigations revealed that the conclusions of multiple scientists contrary to the ultimate assertion of glyphosate carcinogenicity were removed from IARC’s final report. In one case, entirely new statistical analysis was inserted, with the effect of reversing original findings of the study. In another section of draft, notes from experts at the US Environmental Protection Agency citing “unanimous” agreement that the chemical had no part in causing abnormal growths in mice was deleted in full. Unsurprisingly, IARC’s glyphosate assessment has not been shared by any other organisation, and, similarly to coffee sellers, would force merchants of glyphosate-containing products to label a substance as cancer-causing despite all evidence to the contrary.

In light of the arbitrary legal manoeuvring at play since the passage of Prop 65, there is no doubt that the basis of persistent health alarmism is an ideological one. With each new finding of carcinogenicity by organizations such as IARC that eventually find their way onto Prop 65, consumers are mollified into a deeper sense of morbid scepticism. It is time that genuine, scientifically-based health assessments are given priority over false claims by activists.

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