- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

The food industry is watching for an expected flood of lawsuits in the wake of a jury award to a factory worker who inhaled vapors from microwave-popcorn flavoring.

But several industry groups say the case is not on the same level of concern as obesity-related lawsuits that have tried to blame Americans’ extra pounds on food manufacturers and sellers.

A Missouri jury on March 15 awarded Eric Peoples, 32, and his wife $20 million from New York flavor manufacturer International Flavors and Fragrances Inc. Mr. Peoples said his lungs were ruined from mixing flavoring oils, which were supplied by International Flavors, at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in Jasper, Mo.

The case is the first by 30 former employees who say they have a rare lung disease after being exposed to popcorn-flavor vapors.

Mr. Peoples’ attorney, Kenneth B. McClain, said the next trial is set for April 20. He is representing at least 20 other factory workers in Missouri, Ohio and Illinois.

Although the cases focus on workers’ injuries, Mr. McClain would not rule out the public filing personal injury cases as well.

“I hope this material is not that dangerous, but I can’t answer that question yet because we have quality-control workers — not just the flavor mixers — that were injured as well,” said Mr. McClain, a former tobacco litigator.

“Every exposure to diacetyl does some damage. Now that may seem like a drop in the ocean if you pop a bag of popcorn in the microwave once in a while, but over 20 years of continuous exposure it could be more,” he said.

International Flavors, which plans to appeal the ruling, has maintained that its flavors are safe as long as the workers follow the safety instructions.

The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the effects of the chemicals, particularly diacetyl, released from a bag of popcorn when it is popped or opened, although the agency has assured the public that microwave popcorn is safe to eat.

The American Tort Reform Association, a Washington lawsuit-reform group, said it is worried that trial lawyers may try to magnify the effects of diacetyl, the chemical linked to the lung disease, to the level of asbestos, which has won about $54 billion for plaintiffs.

Mr. Peoples, who was not awarded any punitive damages, is on a waiting list for a lung transplant. He is expected to have a 20-year life expectancy after he undergoes the double-lung transplant.

Glenn Roberts, executive director for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association, said the D.C. trade group is not concerned about the litigation spreading to other flavorings or spices.

“Fortunately, such incidents are very rare in our industry,” Mr. Roberts said in a statement.

But health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that the sick Missouri workers trigger new concerns for flavoring-plant operations.

The National Food Processors Association, a D.C. trade group for the $500 billion industry, also is watching the case closely. But the group does not see the matter escalating into lawsuits such as those against McDonald’s Corp. that contended that the fast-food giant caused weight gain in several New York children, said spokesman Timothy Willard.

Obesity lawsuits have pressured some food companies to shrink their serving sizes and have prompted members of Congress to protect the food industry.

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