Chemical linked to lung ailment to be removed
OMAHA, Neb. — The nation's largest microwave popcorn maker, ConAgra Foods Inc., said Wednesday it will change the recipe for its Orville Redenbacher and Act II brands over the next year to remove a flavoring chemical linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers.
The announcement comes a day after a doctor at a leading lung research hospital said in a warning letter to federal regulators that consumers, not just factory workers, might be in danger from fumes from buttery flavoring in microwave popcorn.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the company decided in the past few months to remove the butter flavoring diacetyl from its popcorn because of the risk the chemical presents to workers who handle large quantities.
The chemical diacetyl has been linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung.
ConAgra's announcement comes a week after another popcorn manufacturer, Weaver Popcorn Co. of Indianapolis, said it would replace the butter flavoring ingredient because of consumer concern.
ConAgra doesn't know how soon it will be able to replace diacetyl with a different butter flavoring, Childs said, but the change will be made sometime over the next year. "We've made that decision based on the knowledge for the potential risk to our employees," Childs said.
The Omaha-based company has been making changes at its popcorn plants over the past few years to reduce employee exposure to diacetyl, she said. But the company doesn't think diacetyl in popcorn represents a safety risk to consumers, Childs said.
"We're fully confident that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers in the home," she said.
It was reported Tuesday that a pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center had written to federal agencies to say doctors there think they have the first case of a consumer who developed lung disease from the fumes of microwaving popcorn several times a day for years.
Dr. Cecile Rose sent the letter to federal health officials in July.
The first government study to look at what fumes are produced by microwaving popcorn at home is due to be published as soon as this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.
The two-year study by EPA researchers was completed in late 2005 and has been under wraps, prompting critics to charge that the agency was protecting industry interests. But an EPA spokeswoman said the delay was because of a string of requirements including scientific review, submission of the report to industry and the time it took to get into a scientific journal. EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said the paper recently was accepted for publication as early as this month in a major scientific journal that she would not name.
The EPA denied a Freedom of Information request last fall from the Associated Press for the report, arguing it was a draft still under review. The agency has not answered an AP appeal of that rejection.
Ackerman confirmed that the study had been submitted to popcorn manufacturers ahead of its release. She said that was done to let companies make sure there were no competitive secrets in the report. EPA scientists signed nondisclosure agreements with the industry in return for lists of ingredients.
The report, "Emissions from Cooking Microwave Popcorn," is not a study of the health effects of diacetyl or other fumes on consumers. Instead, it looks at exactly what gases are produced in what amount when consumers make microwave popcorn at home.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association said Rose's finding does not suggest a risk from eating microwave popcorn. The concern instead focuses on workers inhaling it in manufacturing settings, either in making the flavoring or adding it to food products ranging from popcorn to pound cakes.
The Washington-based association has said several flavor manufacturers are either researching alternatives to diacetyl or already marketing butter flavors free of the chemical.
The trade group said the FDA has approved the use of diacetyl as a flavor ingredient, and diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as butter, cheese and fruits.