- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The House is set to vote this week on legislation aimed at protecting workers from a chemical used in the manufacturing of microwave popcorn.

Diacetyl, a butter flavoring, is linked to a lung ailment diagnosed in popcorn-plant workers and commonly called “popcorn lung.”

“Congressional action is urgently needed because OSHA has failed to take action to protect workers from this serious workplace hazard,” said William Samuel, AFL-CIO director of legislation.

Diacetyl is a natural substance in many dairy products. It was first produced synthetically in Europe and is added to thousands of products around the world to increase or enrich butter flavoring.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, attributes the deaths of three workers to diacetyl.

Dozens of popcorn workers in several states — including Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin— have filed lawsuits against diacetyl manufacturers. The lawsuits, claiming injury from breathing diacetyl, have resulted in jury awards of up to $20 million.

In response to outbreaks of popcorn lung, the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health recommends that employers take steps to protect their workers, such as installing ventilation systems and monitoring exposure.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat, would require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement and enforce the national institute’s recommendations and set a permissible exposure limit for diacetyl within two years.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association recommended that its members reduce the amount of diacetyl used in product formulation and support the bill.

A coalition of food industry organizations — including the American Bakers Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — argues that scientific data are insufficient for an OSHA standard.

The Bush administration said yesterday it opposes the bill and that OSHA is making progress to protect workers against injury from diacetyl. The agency is inspecting popcorn plants to ensure they have acceptable ventilation and other controls.

ConAgra Foods Inc., the nation’s largest producer of microwave popcorn, announced this month that it will change the recipe for its Orville Redenbacher brand popcorn over the next year to remove diacetyl.

The announcement was made a day after doctors in Colorado said they had discovered the first case of popcorn lung in a consumer.

“We cannot be sure that this patient’s exposure to butter-flavored microwave popcorn from daily, heavy preparation has caused his lung disease. However, we have no other plausible explanation,” said Cecile Rose, a pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center.

Weaver Popcorn Co. in Indiana removed diacetyl from its Pop Weaver brand microwave popcorn. Kraft Foods Inc. recently introduced a butter flavor that contains diacetyl.

The first reports of popcorn lung emerged in the Midwest in the late 1990s. The cases sparked concern among health officials because the disease was found in young workers with minimal exposure to the chemical.

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