Iowa Public Television


Chemical Linked to Lung Ailment Removed from Most Popcorn

posted on December 21, 2007

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) -- The nation's four biggest makers of microwave popcorn have removed a flavoring chemical that has been linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers from nearly all their products. The companies say all their 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. In August, the Weaver Popcorn Company of Indianapolis announced it had removed the butter flavor diacetyl from all its microwave popcorn varieties. ConAgra Foods Inc., of Omaha, General Mills Inc., of Golden Valley, Minn., and the American Pop Corn Co., of Sioux City, Iowa, all promised in September to change their microwave popcorn recipes. Those three companies sell Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret and Jolly Time microwave popcorn. "We want to assure our consumers they can continue to enjoy their favorite popcorn with complete confidence," said ConAgra's Stan Jacot, who oversees popcorn marketing for the company. The chemical diacetyl has been linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung. Diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as butter, cheese and fruits, and the FDA has approved its use as a flavor ingredient. Earlier this year, a pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center wrote to federal agencies to say doctors there 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. 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 settings - either in making the flavoring or adding it to food products ranging from popcorn to pound cakes. The food companies have trouble saying exactly when the new popcorn will be available at all stores because the timetable depends on how much popcorn a store sells and how much popcorn stores keep in their own warehouses. 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. ConAgra says the new popcorn started showing up in stores this month. Consumers will be able to spot the newer popcorn because ConAgra will print "No Added Diacetyl" on the box. General Mills, which sells but doesn't make Pop Secret popcorn, removed diacetyl from its popcorn in October, spokesman Tom Forsythe said Monday. A spokeswoman for American Pop Corn, which makes Jolly Time, said all but one of its products had been converted to new flavoring recipes. And spokeswoman Tracy Boever said that last popcorn product will be changed by Jan. 1.

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