Popcorn Workers Lung Subject of FDA InvestigationSep 6, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP, LLP
Popcorn Workers Lung, a dangerous condition tied to a chemical used in microwave popcorn, is finally getting the attention of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Yesterday, the FDA said that it would be investigating the case of a man who ate several bags of microwave popcorn each day and has been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as Popcorn Workers Lung. Meanwhile, ConAgra Foods, Inc. said yesterday that it would no longer use the chemical diacetyl – the likely culprit behind Popcorn Workers Lung – in its microwave popcorns.
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 potentially life threatening ailment, for which the only cure is a lung transplant. The disease is also rare, and was thought to be limited to people working in the flavorings industry. But now it appears that a consumer with a heavy microwave popcorn habit might be suffering from the disease. In July, Dr. Cecile Rhodes informed the FDA that one of her patients had contracted the disease. The patient had been consuming several bags of butter-flavored microwave popcorn on a daily basis for at least 15 years. According to the CDC, this is the first report of Popcorn Workers Lung in a consumer.
On the same day the FDA announced its investigation, ConAgra Foods, Inc. said that it planned to cease using diacetyl in its microwave popcorns “within a year”. The company produces Orville Redenbacher and Act II microwave popcorn brands, two of the biggest selling popcorns. ConAgra said that the decision to stop using diacetyl was made in order to protect employees who are exposed to large amounts of the chemical. ConAgra also said that it wanted to ease consumer fears about the safety of its microwave popcorn. Last week, Weaver Popcorn, the second largest microwave popcorn manufacturer, announced that it would no longer be using diacetyl in its products. And the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has also recommended that the makers of butter-flavored microwave popcorns consider reducing the amount of diacetyl they use.
Since the link between diacetyl and Popcorn Workers Lung was made public, workers in the flavorings industry who developed the condition have been awarded millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements against their employees. But questions have been raised about government regulators’ response to the diacetyl question. The FDA declared the chemical safe years ago, and had not done any further investigation until this point. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) completed a two-year study on the risk microwave popcorn fumes posed to consumers, but the study findings were only released to popcorn manufacturers. Recently however, the EPA has come under pressure to make the findings public, and now the agency has said that the popcorn study will be published in a major scientific journal within a month.