Weaver Popcorn First to Eliminate Diacetyl From Products

In light of the recent scrutiny placed on the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl by labor unions and legislators, the Indianapolis-based popcorn manufacturer Weaver Popcorn Co. Inc. has become the first microwave popcorn brand to eliminate the flavoring agent from its Pop Weaver microwave popcorn products.

“Although diacetyl has long been considered safe for use in consumer food products, the flavoring has been cited as a possible source of injury to certain employees of food companies who may have inhaled large dosages of diacetyl while mixing it under unsafe conditions,” the company said in a statement.

The 80-year old, family-owned company said it has discovered an alternate method of flavoring and is teaming up with Otten Flavors of Philadelphia to utilize the new flavor in its brands. Popcorn with the new flavor formulation could be available in stores in the next few weeks, the company said.

Diacetyl is a hazardous chemical that has been connected to a potentially fatal lung disease known as "popcorn workers' lung," or bronchiolitis obliterans – a severe, disabling and often-fatal lung disease experienced by factory workers who produce or handle diacetyl. It is used in butter flavorings found in many other brands of microwave popcorn, pastries, cake mixes, flour, cookies, crackers, frozen foods, potato chips and candy.

According to Mike Weaver, president of Weaver, none of its workers have fallen ill as a result of diaceytl exposure, but he decided to do away with the flavoring to ease any fears consumers might have due to recent headlines. He also said it was important that the company take an industry-leading role in making that decision.

“We follow strict safety guidelines in manufacturing our products, so we've had no incidents among our associates related to diacetyl exposure,” said Weaver. “However, we know consumers are becoming increasingly
concerned about this issue, so we've taken it out of our flavorings.”

EPA Popcorn Study Yet to Be Released

There has been no evidence that indicates consumers are at risk of falling ill as a result of consuming products that have been manufactured with diacetyl, the company emphasized. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly conducted a study in 2003 on the chemicals released when consumers pop and open bags of microwave popcorn, but it never has been released to the public.

In fact, the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) – a public health think tank based at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. – sent a letter to EPA urging them to release the findings. According to SKAPP, EPA responded that the paper summarizing their findings has undergone internal and external review and will be sent to industry “solely to ensure that no confidential business information is released.”

Diacetyl also has been the subject of a series of lawsuits in recent years brought by workers who have fallen ill with popcorn lung.

In an April 1, 2005, article, Occupationalhazards.com reported a jury awarded $15 million in damages to Richard Brand, a former employee of Gilster-Mary Lee, who sued International Flavor and Fragrances Inc. and Bush Boake Allen on the grounds that he developed bronchiolitis obliterans from exposure to diacetyl. In 2004, a jury awarded $20 million in damages to Eric Peoples, another former Gilster-Mary Lee employee who claims his lungs were damaged by breathing in diacetyl.

Still No OSHA Standard For Diacetyl

Federal and state agencies and legislators want to eliminate or, at least, regulate the use of diacetyl:

  • The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a study in 2002 that claimed there is a connection between diacetyl and lung disease after investigating a popcorn plant in Missouri where 20 workers were diagnosed with popcorn lung.
  • The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CAL/OSHA) currently is on track to develop a standard for the chemical and currently is conducting inspections of facilities that use diacetyl in their operations. The agency has reported that it will ban use of the chemical in the state by 2010.
  • Connecticut State Representative Rosa Delauro has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ban diacetyl nationwide.

During various Capitol Hill hearings, House leaders chastised OSHA for not having taken any action in promulgating a standard that would protect workers from the chemical. In order to impel OSHA to promulgate a standard, House legislators introduced the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act (H.R. 2693), which, would require the agency to issue a regulation that mandates engineering controls, work practice controls and respiratory protection to minimize workers' exposure to diacetyl. The bill was passed by the House Education and Labor Committee on June 20.

OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke, who testified at a April 24 hearing on the effectiveness of OSHA protections, said there wasn't significant evidence that can single out diacetyl to be cause of popcorn lung disease. He called the agent to be merely a “substance of suspicion.”

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