Council for Education and Research on Toxics

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) is a sham environmentalist nonprofit that sues food companies and collects settlements to fund additional lawsuits against other food companies. Founded in 2002 by toxicologist Martyn T. Smith, with backing from the shameless trial lawyers at Metzger Law Group, CERT uses junk science to target California businesses that can be sued under the state’s ill-conceived Proposition 65.

CERT, Metzger Law Group and The “Bounty Hunting Scheme”

News stories documenting CERT’s activities suggest that the non-profit is merely a client of the Metzger Law Group. But the two organizations are one in the same. They share the same mailing address and phone number, and infamous California trial Lawyer Raphael Metzger is listed as CERT’s contact person. The phony non-profit appears to be an example of a common bounty hunting litigation scheme in California. Personal injury and class action law firms in the state establish non-profits specifically to file Prop 65. lawsuits against businesses, then hire activist academics like Smith to serve as expert witnesses in the lawsuits.

Will French Fries Give You Cancer?

Approved by California voters in 1986, the ostensible purpose of Prop. 65 is to alert consumers to the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in the goods they purchase. But the law contains an odd provision that allows “…any individual acting in the public interest…” to enforce Prop. 65 by suing businesses suspected of violating the law. These opportunistic individuals are usually trial lawyers and “public health” activists like Smith, who earn millions of dollars by filing such lawsuits, nearly $20 million in 2017 alone. The defending businesses usually opt to settle out of court even when they are in compliance with Prop. 65., because fighting the lawsuit is prohibitively expensive, enough to bankrupt many California small businesses.

In 2002, Metzger Law Group filed a lawsuit on behalf of CERT against McDonald’s and Burger King, alleging that fast food French fries contain dangerous levels of a supposedly carcinogenic chemical called acrylamide. Acrylamide is a byproduct of cooking, and any food that is baked, fried or roasted likely contains trace amounts of it. CERT prevailed in the lawsuit, and now fast food restaurants in California must post warning signs that their French fries contain acrylamide.

The verdict was based on the results of several studies showing that acrylamide causes cancer in laboratory rats and mice. However, research conducted by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates that most baked, fried and roasted foods contain acrylamide in the minuscule parts per billion range (ppb) and consumers do not need to stop eating  them, according to the agency.

The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that “…epidemiological studies do not provide any consistent evidence that occupational exposure or dietary exposure to acrylamide is associated with cancer in humans. ” (p 13) Two additional studies published in 2006 and 2008, respectively, similarly conclude that there is very weak or no evidence for an association between acrylamide exposure and cancer in humans. The National Cancer Institute agrees as well, pointing out that rodents and humans metabolize the chemical differently and absorb it at different rates. As a result, rodent studies can’t be used to conclude that acrylamide is carcinogenic to humans. Most importantly, food industry workers who are exposed to twice as much acrylamide as consumers do not experience higher rates of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK.

A Cup of Coffee with a Cancer Warning

CERT sued 90 ready-to-drink coffee companies including Starbucks in 2010, because their drinks supposedly contain dangerous levels of acrylamide. Again represented by the Metzger Law Group, CERT demanded that these companies “…warn California consumers that this carcinogen is present in the foods that they sell.” In the spring of 2018, a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge sided with CERT, ruling that the “[de]fendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving … that consumption of coffee confers a benefit to human health.”

The authors of an extensive 2017 literature review disagree. They argue in their analysis of 112 studies that coffee consumption is associated with “…a probable decreased risk of breast, colorectal, colon, endometrial, and prostate cancers.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which once declared coffee a “probable carcinogen,” now agrees that coffee has a protective effect against some cancers, and probably doesn’t cause any others. IARC’s reversal on coffee’s carcinogenicity reveals the blatant contradiction in CERT’s case against acrylamide. The international cancer agency, where Smith once served as an “invited specialist,” previously classified acrylamide as a carcinogen. But it clearly doesn’t make sense to say that coffee protects against cancer and contains a cancer-causing agent. Sadly, such facts have been deemed irrelevant in California.