The news was natural fodder for reductive, hyperbolic headlines.
No, coffee doesn’t cause cancer, says Chinese state media
On Wednesday, a California court ruled on a lawsuit brought by a little-known group called the Council for Education and Research on Toxics, forcing all coffee shops in the state to warn their customers of the potential cancer risks of drinking coffee.
The World Health Organization’s cancer researchers say you shouldn’t worry (read their 2016 paper here), but in China, posts blaring the bad – and inflammatory – news along the lines of “STARBUCKS CAUSES CANCER” and “STARBUCKS SCANDAL” flooded social media.
That unscrupulous headline writers misled readers for clicks isn’t shocking, but for a country where “food is heaven” and yet has been troubled by a string of food safety scandals in recent years, the reports set off a sober debate over fake news and what to do about it.
“The rumors that Starbucks causes cancer is yet another example that ‘fake news spreads faster than real news’,” reads a commentary in a state-run newspaper China Youth Daily.
People are so confused by news they receive through social media that they’ve “lost the ability and desire to determine the truthfulness of information,” the article adds.
Even though coffee is an imported product and Starbucks is an American brand, the Chinese government came down on the rumors hard and fast.
The “China Food Rumor-Refuting” website, run by government food authorities and the state news agency Xinhua, published a fact-checking article in response to what it said were “malicious” stories that had caused “public panic.” Stories with headlines like:
- “The Starbucks coffee you drink contains strong carcinogens. Very scary!”
- “The US Californian government requires cancer warning on coffee, giving Starbucks a ‘death sentence’!”
- “A scandal Starbucks suppressed for 8 years is finally revealed! It’s finished!”
The article pointed out that there was no evidence that acrylamide, a chemical known to exist in coffee, causes cancer in humans, adding that people who fabricate rumors need to be punished.
The breathless headlines stem from a court ruling last week in the US that coffee sellers must put cancer warnings on coffee.
That’s because a California law requires businesses to warn customers of exposure to any of the hundreds of chemicals, like acrylamide, that the state considers to cause cancer. The 1986 law, known as Proposition 65 or the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, allows people to sue on behalf of the state and collect a portion of the penalities levied.
Industry groups say such a warning would be misleading because the amount of the chemical in coffee is trivial, and there's no evidence that it would cause cancer.
Food safety in China
There was a reason for China’s official rebukes to these rumors.
China is eager to move on from a string of deadly food safety scandals in recent years, most notably milk adulterated with melamine that in 2008 that sickened an estimated 300,000 babies in China, and caused at least six deaths.
Food safety issues didn’t begin or stop then, but the Chinese government has moved in the past few years to address them – hence the rumor-refuting website.
But the strong rebuke to false rumors about coffee was evidently not noticed by all – that’s despite Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, deactivating at least one account that posted them.
"Starbucks isn't trustworthy. We'd better stay away from the likes of Starbucks and Nestle coffee," a user named Dong Qihe wrote on Weibo – in response to CCTV's attempt to debunk the rumors.
US media isn't alone in its struggle to deal with problematic news – and gullible readers.