California Roasts Fear-Mongering Industry

A year ago, California set out to create an exemption for coffee from its Proposition 65 regulations. The lawsuit industry, represented by the Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) had been successfully deploying Prop 65’s private right of action provisions to pick the pockets of coffee vendors. Something had to give.

In 2010, Mr. Metzger, on behalf of CERT, sued Starbucks and 90 other coffee manufacturers and distributors, claiming they had failed to warn consumers about the cancer risks of acrylamide. CERT’s mission was to shake down the roasters and the vendors because coffee has minor amounts of acrylamide in it. Acrylamide in very high doses causes tumors in rats[1]; coffee consumption by humans is generally regarded as beneficial.

Earlier last year a Los Angeles Superior Court ordered the coffee companies to put cancer warnings on their beverages. In the upcoming damages phase of the case, Metzger sought as much as $2,500 in civil penalties for each cup of coffee the defendants sold over at least a decade. Suing companies for violating California’s Proposition 65 is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the State’s regulatory initiative to save California from the embarrassment of branding coffee a carcinogen was a major setback for CERT.

And so the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) began a rulemaking largely designed to protect the agency from the public relations nightmare created by the application of the governing statute and regulations to squeeze the coffee roasters and makers.[2] The California’s agency’s proposed regulation on acrylamide in coffee resulted in a stay of CERT’s enforcement action against Starbucks.[3] CERT’s lawyers were not pleased; they had already won a trial court’s judgment that they were owed damages, and only the amount needed to be set. In September 2018, CERT filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the state of California challenging OEHHA’s proposed rule, saying it was being rammed through the agency on the order of the Office of the Governor in an effort to kill CERT’s suit against the coffee companies. Or maybe it was simply designed to allow people to drink their coffee without the Big Prop 65 warning.

Earlier this month, after reviewing voluminous submissions and holding a hearing, the OEHHA announced its ruling that Californians do not need to be warned that coffee causes cancer. Epistemically, coffee is not known to the State of California to be hazardous to human health.[4] According to Sam Delson, a spokesperson for the OEHHA, “Coffee is a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals that includes both carcinogens and anti-carcinogens. … The overall effect of coffee consumption is not associated with any significant cancer risk.” The regulation saving coffee goes into effect in October 2019. CERT, no doubt, will press on in its litigation campaign against the State.

CERT is the ethically dodgy organization founded by C. Sterling Wolfe, a former environmental lawyer; Brad Lunn; Carl Cranor, a philosophy professor at University of California Riverside; and Martyn T. Smith, a toxicology professor at University of California Berkeley.[5] Metzger has been its lawyer for many years; indeed, Metzger and CERT share the same office. Smith has been the recipient of CERT’s largesse in funding toxicologic studies. Cranor and Smith have both testified for the lawsuit industry.

In the well-known Milward case,[6] both Cranor and Smith served as paid expert witnesses for plaintiff. When the trial court excluded their proffered testimonies as unhelpful and unreliable, their own organization, CERT, came to the rescue by filing an amicus brief in the First Circuit. Supporting by a large cast of fellow travelers, CERT perverted the course of justice by failing to disclose the intimate relationship between the “amicus” CERT and the expert witnesses Cranor and Smith, whose opinions had been successfully challenged.[7]

The OEHHA coffee regulation shows that not all regulation is bad.


[1]  National Cancer Institute, “Acrylamide and Cancer Risk.”

[2]  See Sam Delson, “Press Release: Proposed OEHHA regulation clarifies that cancer warnings are not required for coffee under Proposition 65” (June 15, 2018).

[3]  Council for Education and Research on Toxics v. Starbucks Corp., case no. B292762, Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District.

[4]  Associated Press, “Perk Up: California Says Coffee Cancer Risk Insignificant,” N.Y. Times (June 3, 2019); Sara Randazzo, “Coffee Doesn’t Warrant a Cancer Warning in California, Agency Says; Industry scores win following finding on chemical found in beverage,” W.S.J. (June 3, 2019); Editorial Board, “Coffee Doesn’t Kill After All: California has a moment of sanity, and a lawyer is furious,” Wall.St.J. (June 5, 2019).

[5]  Michael Waters, “The Secretive Non-Profit Gaming California’s Health Laws,” The Outline (June 18, 2018); Beth Mole, “The secretive nonprofit that made millions suing companies over cancer warnings,” Ars Technica (June 6, 2019); NAS, “Coffee with Cream, Sugar & a Dash of Acrylamide” (June 9, 2018); NAS, “The Council for Education & Research on Toxics” (July 9, 2013); NAS, “Sand in My Shoe – CERTainly” (June 17, 2014) (CERT briefs supported by fellow-travelers, testifying expert witnesses Jerrold Abraham, Richard W. Clapp, Ronald Crystal, David A. Eastmond, Arthur L. Frank, Robert J. Harrison, Ronald Melnick, Lee Newman, Stephen M. Rappaport, David Joseph Ross, and Janet Weiss, all without disclosing conflicts of interest).

[6]  Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 664 F. Supp. 2d 137, 148 (D.Mass. 2009), rev’d, 639 F.3d 11 (1st Cir. 2011), cert. den. sub nom. U.S. Steel Corp. v. Milward, 565 U.S. 1111 (2012), on remand, Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products Group, Inc., 969 F.Supp. 2d 101 (D.Mass. 2013) (excluding specific causation opinions as invalid; granting summary judgment), aff’d, 820 F.3d 469 (1st Cir. 2016).

[7]  NAS, “The Council for Education & Research on Toxics” (July 9, 2013) (CERT amicus brief filed without any disclosure of conflict of interest). The fellow travelers who knowingly or unknowingly aided CERT’s scheme to pervert the course of justice, included some well-known testifiers for the lawsuit industry: Nicholas A. Ashford, Nachman Brautbar, David C. Christiani, Richard W. Clapp, James Dahlgren, Devra Lee Davis, Malin Roy Dollinger, Brian G. Durie, David A. Eastmond, Arthur L. Frank, Frank H. Gardner, Peter L. Greenberg, Robert J. Harrison, Peter F. Infante, Philip J. Landrigan, Barry S. Levy, Melissa A. McDiarmid, Myron Mehlman, Ronald L. Melnick, Mark Nicas, David Ozonoff, Stephen M. Rappaport, David Rosner, Allan H. Smith, Daniel Thau Teitelbaum, Janet Weiss, and Luoping Zhang. See also NAS, “Carl Cranor’s Conflicted Jeremiad Against Daubert” (Sept. 23, 2018); Carl Cranor, “Milward v. Acuity Specialty Products: How the First Circuit Opened Courthouse Doors for Wronged Parties to Present Wider Range of Scientific Evidence” (July 25, 2011).

 

 

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