The Dangers of Overly Cautious Labeling

Do California's warning labels tell us anything?

Last month a judge ruled that products containing the ingredient glyphosate would have to abide by a California state law known as Proposition 65 and carry a warning label that says “This product contains a chemical known to the state of California to cause cancer.” Research conducted by the EPA, the Agricultural Health Study, European Food Safety Authority, and others have concluded as recently as today that glyphosate is safe and does not pose a cancer risk. However, a report published in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization, claimed that the chemical was carcinogenic. The scientific findings of the agency did not seem to conclude that glysophate caused cancer, however for unknown reasons this information was heavily edited and not fully included in the published version. Regardless, the report is enough under Proposition 65 for California to mandate the label for products like Roundup and other herbicides that contain glyphosate.

This is not the only product that is carrying the very serious label without much serious science behind it due to California’s incredibly loose standards for what it considers dangerous. Coffee is required to carry the cancer warning label because acrylamide, a chemical that occurs during the roasting process, is on California’s list of carcinogenic chemicals. However, multiple studies by multiple organizations, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer, have concluded that drinking coffee does not increase a person’s risk of cancer. Just because a substance is carcinogenic at a certain level, or taken in a certain way, does not mean that every product containing that chemical poses a cancer risk. Unfortunately, California law does not allow for that kind if distinction. While it may seem harmless to be so overzealous when it comes to cancer warnings, there are actually a range of problems with this.

Manufacturers of products that have to carry the cancer warning in California are left with two bad options for labeling. They can make two separate labels, one for products sold in California and one for products being sold anywhere else, which is an added expense. Or they can include the California cancer warning on all their labels and run the risk of their products ending up on a store shelf outside of California next to a competitor’s product that doesn’t have the label. If a shopper in Nevada sees two bottles of weed killer for sale and one has a label on it saying that it causes cancer and the other doesn’t, they could be forgiven for thinking that one product was dangerous and the other wasn’t, rather than concluding that the two have identical ingredients and one happens to also be sold in California.

For consumers having a cancer warning label on so many things that don’t functionally pose a risk for humans means that it’s harder for people to differentiate which products are actually dangerous. In California coffee and cigarettes both carry cancer warning labels, but have vastly different health risks, which is to say that one poses an extreme health risk and the other poses no real health risk and actually has a range of health benefits. When it comes to glyphosate there is no way for consumers in California to know from the label if it “causes cancer” the way that coffee does, or if it causes cancer the way that cigarettes do. Having a label that doesn’t provide any actionable information to consumer isn’t just pointless it’s dangerous. These types of labels erode the system of warnings that people should be able to rely on to make informed decisions and it erodes people’s understanding of the science and data behind those warnings.