Sunday, April 01, 2018

Lawyering Coffee

UPDATE: On March 30, Peter Giuliano -- an industry leader I have seen in coffee documentaries and in the coffeelands of Nicaragua -- issued a strong statement on behalf of the Specialty Coffee Association in response to the legal ruling. He cites several medical authorities in objecting to the legal decision I discuss below.

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"But that's a very low animal!" my friend exclaimed (in Portuguese), as he tried once again to get me to explain the plethora of lawyer jokes in the United States.

He was referring to the use of the word "snake" to describe lawyers, which he had heard from American television or movies, probably more than once. Throughout the first several weeks of my 1996 research project in Rondônia, he would ruefully regale me (if that is possible) with the latest examples of lawyer jokes he had heard, and would even allow me to tell him a few more.

He was, as readers may guess, a lawyer himself, married to one of the professors I was working with. In Brazil, he asserted (and I've been given no reason to doubt him), lawyers are generally respected. A lot of education is required to become a lawyer, and they are considered comparable, he said, to other professions.

Early in the visit, my Portuguese was good but not great. I could communicate necessary things, but jokes and subtleties were beyond me. So I considered it a personal linguistic breakthrough when I explained one thing about lawyering in the United States that made him nod, "Ohhhhhh. Entendeu." "I understand." 

I have been thinking of this over the past week, as many friends have asked me to comment on the latest coffee story to be making the rounds. The acrylamide story appears to raise questions about coffee and health, but it is mainly a story about lawyers. As reported by Reuters and many others, Los Angeles judge Elihu Berle has ruled that Starbucks must display a warning about possible cancer risk arising from the acrylamide that is created in the roasting process.

This case is similar to those whose explanation finally allowed me to make the connection for my lawyer friend in Brazil. It has deep-pocketed defendants, disinterested but numerous plaintiffs, and a lawyer who has figured out how to capture a hefty fee from "organizing" one to sue the other. I put the word organizing in quotes because the class of plaintiffs in such a suit have no idea they are going to be plaintiffs until the suit is under way. Each plaintiff has a very small stake in the case, but the fee each of them shares with lawyers can add up to real money. I recalled a case in which airlines were shown to have been overcharging customers. I "won" that case along with thousands of other passengers; we each received coupons toward future travel, which eventually saved me dozens of dollars. The attorneys involved won millions, of course.

The current case is not exactly analogous, because plaintiffs will not receive compensation, but attorney Raphael Metzger almost certainly will. California law is written -- with the laudable intention of protecting public health -- in such a way as to create irresistible incentives for such legal action. Of course, it is unlikely that no lawyers were present when the relevant legislation was drafted.

I am not prepared to let the defendant's lawyers off the hook without some criticism, though. It seems that they are prepared to comply and even pay fines in order to avoid delving too deeply into the potential -- though small -- risks posed by acrylamides.

The Coffee

The defendants include 90 coffee roasters and retailers, though Starbucks is the largest of these and the most often cited in media coverage. Interestingly, acrylamides are associated with darker roasts, for which the company sometimes known as Charbucks is most famous. (My spell-check did not even flag that pejorative nickname just now!)

Although the company added medium roasts (which it calls "Blonde") to its menu in recent years, it is still best known for super-dark roasts. The reasons are several; I'm not sure which of these is most important:
  • Howard Shultz starts each day with a very dark Sumatra.
  • His original idea with the brand was to mimik the cafés of Italy.
  • The darker the roast, the easier it is to maintain consistent flavor over a wide geographic range of sources and over many crop years. In other words, charcoal is charcoal. 
That last snide remark notwithstanding, I do like very dark coffee at times, but a lighter roast often brings out more subtle flavors, particularly among my favorite coffees from Latin America.

The Risks

So what about the actual risk? The National Cancer Institute provides a readable acrylamide fact sheet, with links to original studies. The research does indeed connect acrylamide to cancer, though it cites only mouse-model studies and offers several reasons that human-model studies have been inconclusive. It also explains how acrylamide is created in the roasting of coffee, as it is in the high-temperature cooking of several other fruits and vegetables. Similar risks are posed by "French fries and potato chips; crackers, bread, and cookies; breakfast cereals; canned black olives; [and] prune juice." Higher risks are produced by cigarettes, and workers in certain manufacturing industries are required to wear protection against respiratory exposure.

To date, if colleagues at the Vanderbilt Institute for Coffee Studies have written on this acrylamides, they have not posted it on our web site, which does include quite a articles on coffee and health, mostly positive.

Acrylamides are not, incidentally, the same compounds that are created in the grilling or processing of meats. Laboratory studies and limited epidemiological evidence suggests that PAH and PAA compounds may also be related to cancer. I have not heard much about these since last summer; though they may become part of an annual grilling-season clickbait ritual.

Bottom Line

For now -- like the lawyer who brought this case -- I will continue to enjoy my coffee.

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