Diacetyl used in Thousands of Foods. Are Consumers at Risk for Popcorn Workers Lung?Jan 8, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Diacetyl, a chemical linked to a deadly disorder known as Popcorn Workers Lung could be present in an as many 6,000 consumer products. That finding is disturbing, especially considering that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was recently informed of what might be the first recorded diagnosis of Popcorn Workers Lung in a consumer with no ties whatsoever to the snack foods industry.
Popcorn Workers Lung - also known as Bronchiolitis Obliterans -- is a potentially life threatening ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. Diacetyl is used to give microwave popcorn and other snacks a buttery flavor. In 2003 and 2004, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health found an association between the toxic substance and the development of Popcorn Workers Lung among hundreds of workers at six Midwestern popcorn factories. In April, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that workers at food flavoring factories, as well as popcorn plants, were at risk for the disease.
Popcorn workers lung is a very rare disease, and it was thought to be limited to people working in the flavorings industry. But this past July, the FDA was informed that a patient who had consumed at least one bag of microwave popcorn over a 15 year period had been diagnosed with Popcorn Workers Lung. This was the first such report of the disease in a consumer, and the FDA is currently investigating the incident.
According to a report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, natural diacetyl is found in a variety of products, including dairy products, fruit and wine. But the chemical is also used to impart a buttery flavor to thousands of snack foods besides microwave popcorn. Food scientists interviewed for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s report estimated that the butter flavoring is used in more than 6,000 products -- including frozen dinners, baked goods, chips, snacks, candy and beverages. But how much danger such diacetyl exposure poses to consumers is not known, because government regulators haven’t been willing to look at the problem.
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which sets limits on how much of a dangerous substance a worker can be subjected to, said in 2000 that it had no standards for the flavoring and that it wasn't a problem because the FDA considered diacetyl "safe." For its part, the FDA has maintained that it has no jurisdiction to evaluate hazards posed by breathing vapors from food additives. It was only this year that OSHA started to investigate diacetyl exposure in snack food industry workers, and that agency is expected to look into setting standards for workers next month.
Meanwhile, the snack food industry is facing over 500 lawsuits filed by workers disabled by Popcorn Workers Lung linked to diacetyl exposure. That has prompted some manufacturers to act, and some will no longer be using diacetyl in their foods. ConAgra—the nation’s largest producer of popcorn—has removed diacetyl from its microwave popcorn, citing concern for its workers’ health. The nation’s second-largest producer, General Mills, which Sells popcorn under the Pop Secret brand also removed diacetyl from its products in October, and the third biggest popcorn maker, American Pop Corn Co. which makes the Jolly Time brand, is also reformulating its flavorings to remove diacetyl.