SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Following a Los Angeles judge's ruling that coffee companies including Starbucks should carry a cancer warning label due to a chemical produced in the roasting process, leading coffee chains operating in South Korea remained cautious while civic activists called for alert. Consumers were mostly confused.
A local subsidiary of US coffeehouse chain Starbucks Coffee Korea said it has not yet received any guidelines regarding the issue from the headquarters in Seattle, adding that the operation in South Korea will not see a change for now.
"Since the case has been developing for eight years and is still not over in the US, we will have to see what the US headquarters comes up with," a Starbucks Coffee Korea official told The Korea Herald.
The Korean company also said that Starbucks in the US will take collective action with other coffee chains such as Dunkin' Donuts to prove that the threat from acrylamide, a chemical compound produced in the roasting process, is insignificant.
Korean health activists said such a ruling will eventually raise the alarm for local subsidiaries of global coffeehouse chains in South Korea.
"Just two years ago, the International Agency for Research on Cancer downgraded their original 1991 classification of coffee from Group 2B - possibly carcinogenic to humans - to Group 3 which states 'not classifiable as to carcinogenicity.' Although they probably had a reason for that, it looks like the IARC may reassess the risk of developing cancer by drinking coffee, which will impact the global coffeehouse chain's expansion here," Choi Ye Yong, head of the Asian Citizen's Center for Environment and Health told The Korea Herald.
Coffee makes up a significant market in South Korea with Koreans drinking a total of 377 cups per person on average in 2016, according to government data. The size of the domestic coffee market reached 6.4 trillion won (S$7.9 billion) as of 2016.
Consumer reaction was divided.
An online commenter said: "I think the US court is exaggerating the health risk of coffee. If coffee contains carcinogen, I should have already died since I drink at least 3 cups of coffee due to work stress."
Another left a comment saying, "I could always see dark residue from a coffee roasting machine. Now I know that my coffee was made by just pouring water on burnt beans."
Meanwhile, South Korea's Ministry of Food and Drug Safety said it had nothing to comment about since the regulation regarding carcinogen produced during coffee roasting does not exist in South Korea nor is it under review at the moment.
Earlier this month, the ministry ordered a recall on a packaged nuts product after a permissible level of a type of carcinogen aflatoxin was discovered.
In January, the ministry also tested pollution level of another type of carcinogen benzopyrene over some 200 products of ready-to-eat lunch boxes sold at convenience stores, but confirmed that they were all at the safe level.