Clean Label Project Responds to National Coffee Association

Clean Label Project Responds to National Coffee Association

Earlier this year, Clean Label Project conducted a study on the residual solvent, Methylene Chloride, in decaffeinated coffee. Why? The EPA banned Methylene Chloride in 2019 from being used as an active ingredient in consumer paint stripper. Meanwhile, to this day, methylene chloride is still permitted by the FDA for use as a chemical to decaffeinate coffee. High-risk populations, including pregnant women and people with heart disease, are frequent consumers of decaffeinated coffee. Most concerning is that brands using the antiquated Methylene Chloride decaffeination process refuse to provide consumers with transparent information on the process enabling their customers to make informed choices. The State of California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment website even says that “During pregnancy, methylene chloride can pass from mother to baby.” If mothers-to-be were armed with information on the decaffeination process, chances are they might make different choices.

Clean Label Project commissioned Eurofins, an ISO 17025 scope-accredited analytical chemistry lab, to perform double-blind testing on various decaffeinated coffee products to determine whether methylene chloride persists as an industrial contaminant within the coffee industry, and if so, whether certain manufacturers are worse offenders than others. These test reports revealed levels of methylene chloride in products of several top-selling brands, including Amazon Fresh, Maxwell House, Cafe Bustelo, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Peet’s Coffee.

Our mission at Clean Label Project is to advocate fiercely on behalf of consumers for truth and transparency in consumer product labeling. We stand alongside consumers, and we rely upon data and science, irrespective of the views and desires of the industry. It is this commitment to truth and transparency, informed by data and science, that leads us to stand alongside the coffee industry before the legislature of the State of California. At the same time, that body considered rulemaking related to the presence of Acrylamide in coffee. Acrylamide, which remains classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a “probable carcinogen,” was the chemical at the center of an ongoing California Proposition 65 dispute. Clean Label Project tested top-selling brewed coffee and found it contained levels of Acrylamide below our ability to quantify- a fact trumpeted by the coffee industry as part of its regulatory feud with the State of California. In June of 2019, the coffee industry was victorious and the agency that enforces Prop 65 finally exempted coffee from the list of products requiring a cancer warning. So although the National Coffee Association appears to be questioning the Clean Label Project’s motives as it relates to our advocacy efforts today, it is important to note that the coffee industry1 welcomed and even relied upon our support as a trusted voice before the California legislature less than one year ago.

In the Daily Coffee News coverage, the National Coffee Association aims to discredit Clean Label Project and reference the health benefits of coffee and the legal nature of the use of methylene chloride. What the NCA fails to call attention to in their press release are the many peer-reviewed studies showing the significant health risks methylene chloride poses to vulnerable populations who may be among the most likely consumers of decaffeinated coffee. The data shows that it is possible to bring decaffeinated coffee products to market without the use of methylene chloride, and as such the NCA should consider spending less time questioning the motives of Clean Label Project and more time partnering with their more recalcitrant members to help them bring better, cleaner products to market. We agree with the National Coffee Association that there is peer-reviewed, scientific evidence supporting the view that coffee drinkers may live longer, healthier lives. That’s why we are big coffee drinkers ourselves and also a major reason we care about transparency in coffee labeling. Our goal, like the association, is a thriving coffee industry that serves the needs of consumers. It’s equally important for consumers to make an informed choice about what they are putting in their bodies when consuming the industry’s products.

However, there are a few key points that National Coffee Association failed to mention.

  1. The last time the FDA evaluated the safety level of methylene chloride in coffee was during the Reagan administration.

    That’s right – 1985. The same year that compact discs were released, Lionel Ritchie’s “Say You Say Me” was the #1 song in America, the Golden Girls just hit the small screen, and WrestleMania made its debut at Madison Square Garden with Hulk Hogan & Mr. T with “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka winning the main event. Since then, a lot has changed, but an FDA re-evaluation of methylene chloride safety regulations in coffee is not among them. 

  1. The use of methylene chloride to decaffeinate coffee is legal. However, marketing claims that are false or misleading is not.

    The FTC and the FDA have overlapping jurisdiction to regulate the advertising and labeling of foods. Section 403(a) of the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits the “misbranding” of food, which includes labeling that “is false or misleading in any particular.” Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTC Act) prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” and Sections 12 and 15 of the FTC Act prohibit “any false advertisement” of food products that is “misleading in a material respect.” One would argue that a decaffeinated product with the active ingredient in paint stripper and still has residual levels left in the finished product is far from “pure” or “natural.”

The good news is that there are many leading brands, across all price points, that have made the choice not to use this chemical (these leading brands are members of the National Coffee Association too.) 

At the end of the day, Clean Label Project believes that consumers have a right to know what’s in the products that they purchase for themselves and their families. Consumers should be able to trust what it says on product labels. If brands are proud of their decaffeination method, they should disclose it on their product packaging and on their website. A non-profit volunteer organization shouldn’t have to go on a fact-finding mission to figure it out. When it comes to the true contents of some of America’s best-selling products, the information provided to consumers is unbalanced. Marketing departments do an effective job at selling comfort and security, but analytical chemistry doesn’t lie. Because of perceived corporate apathy and government inaction, consumers serve as the new arbiters of truth, safety, and quality for their households. Progressive brands should view compliance with federal laws as a compass and nothing more than table stakes. Brands should view the evolving consumer expectation of safety and quality as their True North.