Popcorn companies removing hazardous diacetyl butter flavoring from popcorn

December 18, 2007

The nation’s four biggest makers of microwave popcorn have agreed to remove a flavoring chemical, diacetyl, from nearly all their products.

ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha; General Mills Inc. of Golden Valley, Minn.; and the American Pop Corn Co. of Sioux City, Iowa, all promised to change their microwave popcorn recipes. Those three companies sell Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret, and Jolly Time microwave popcorn.

Diacetyl has been linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung. The FDA has approved its use as a flavor ingredient.

This year, a pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center wrote to federal agencies to say doctors at the center believe they have the first case of a consumer who developed lung disease from the fumes of microwaving popcorn several times a day for years.

But generally popcorn lung has been associated with people who worked in microwave popcorn plants mixing large vats of flavors. Hundreds of workers have said they have severe lung disease or other respiratory illnesses from inhaling diacetyl vapors.

More than 500 lawsuits are pending against the companies that produce or use the butter flavoring. About $50 million has been awarded in verdicts that were later settled for confidential amounts. Another 100 cases have been settled that reportedly involve tens of millions of dollars.

The Washington, D.C.-based Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has said consumers shouldn’t worry about eating microwave popcorn as long as they follow directions, which typically include a warning to open bags of popcorn away from the face. The concern instead focuses on workers inhaling it in manufacturing facilities – either in making the flavoring or adding it to food products ranging from popcorn to pound cakes.

ConAgra spokeswoman Regina Demars said the company has already changed the recipe for its Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn, but she didn’t know how long it would take for stores to sell all the popcorn with diacetyl.

All the companies say all their new microwave popcorn recipes should be changed by January. But it might take several months for the reformulated popcorn to replace all the older varieties on store shelves.

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