FDA to decide whether butter flavoring is safe

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

FDA to decide whether

butter flavoring is safe

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing a food additive that critics say puts consumers at risk of developing a rare, irreversible lung condition that has been found in workers at popcorn factories.

Some medical researchers and product-liability attorneys have warned that consumers can develop bronchiolitis obliterans by inhaling diacetyl, a chemical long used to give microwave popcorn and other foods a buttery flavor.

"We're looking at the available information we have on the potential for consumer exposure and how that relates to the available safety data," said Dr. Mitchell A. Cheeseman, director of the FDA's Office of Food Additive Safety. "At this time," he added, "we still consider diacetyl used as a flavoring agent to be safe for consumers."

Diacetyl's critics agree that the chemical poses no health threat when used as a flavoring agent, even in concentrations found at popcorn manufacturing plants. The danger, they say, lies in the vapors the chemical produces when it's heated - a common occurrence during production.

Hundreds of popcorn workers have sued their employers and flavoring manufacturers after developing bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as "popcorn lung." The litigation has resulted in numerous settlements and judgments totaling more than $100 million.

Many popcorn producers, including the ConAgra Foods plant in Marion, have abandoned diacetyl in favor of other flavorings, but, according to the national Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, some companies still use it.

The possibility of a threat to consumers didn't arise until 2007, when bronchiolitis obliterans was diagnosed in Wayne Watson of Colorado. Watson, then 52, had been eating two to three bags of microwave popcorn a day for 10 years. He particularly enjoyed inhaling the buttery steam pouring out of a just-opened package. "When you open the microwave and take out the bag and pull the ends of the bag ... I would breathe it in because it smells good," Watson told WBNS-TV (Channel 10), which has been investigating diacetyl.

Watson sued, and two months ago, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Denver, he reached a settlement with one defendant, a flavor developer. The terms were not disclosed.

A member of Watson's legal team, Kenneth B. McClain, a Missouri-based lawyer who's represented hundreds of workers in popcorn-lung cases, said he recently filed lawsuits on behalf of three other consumers.

The physician who made Watson's diagnosis, Dr. Cecile Rose, head of occupational and environmental medicine at Denver's National Jewish Health Center, is convinced that diacetyl poses a risk not just to popcorn workers, but also to consumers. She has relayed her concerns to four federal agencies, including the FDA.

The FDA says the scientific team assigned to review diacetyl will consider Rose's conclusions. The agency hasn't indicated when it might issue its findings.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who recently urged the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety & Health Administration to assess the workplace risks associated with diacetyl, said he'll be keeping a close eye on the FDA, too. "We want to see the FDA either reassure us, without equivocation, or move forward on telling the public that this substance is questionable."