OMAHA, Neb. — Four of the nation’s biggest microwave popcorn makers are working to remove a flavoring chemical from their products linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers while reassuring consumers about the safety of the snack.
Several of the companies discussed their plans Wednesday, a day after a leading lung research hospital warned that consumers also could be in danger from the buttery flavoring diacetyl.
The three companies that sell Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret and Jolly Time microwave popcorn said they planned to change the recipes for their butter-flavored microwave popcorn to remove diacetyl.
The chemical diacetyl has been linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung.
ConAgra Foods Inc., General Mills Inc. and the American Pop Corn Company all promised to make the change because of safety concerns. Together those companies accounted for more than 80 percent of the market for microwave popcorn over the past 12 months, according to the research firm Information Resources Inc.
ConAgra spokeswoman Stephanie Childs said the change will not affect its popular stovetop popcorn, Jiffy Pop, because it contains natural butter instead of the threatening chemical.
Last week, another popcorn manufacturer, Weaver Popcorn Co. of Indianapolis, said it would replace the butter flavoring ingredient because of consumer concern.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, said the change is significant for workers who handle diacetyl and welcome for consumers even though the butter flavor may not present a significant risk for them.
“If the industry can get rid of the diacetyl, great. Why have any risk at all?” said Michael Jacobson, the nonprofit’s executive director in Washington. “The real risk, the much bigger risk to consumers is the trans fat in popcorns.”
The popcorn makers said consumers worried about diacetyl can buy varieties of microwave popcorn that are not butter flavored because those products don’t contain diacetyl.
Diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as butter, cheese and fruits, and the FDA has approved its use as a flavor ingredient.
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A pulmonary specialist at Denver’s National Jewish Medical and Research Center had written 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, according to reports Tuesday.
Dr. Cecile Rose sent the letter to federal health officials in July.
The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association said that 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, D.C.-based association has said several flavor manufacturers are either researching alternatives to diacetyl or are already marketing butter flavors free of the chemical.
ConAgra, which makes Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn, said it would make the change over the next year.
General Mills, which sells but doesn’t make Pop Secret popcorn, said it planned to phase out diacetyl “soon,” but company spokesman Tom Forsythe said he wasn’t sure how quickly that could be done.
A spokeswoman for American Pop Corn, which makes Jolly Time, said the Sioux City, Iowa, company has been working on a new recipe without diacetyl for several months.
“Within the next 90 days, we will have it removed from all of our microwave popcorn products,” spokeswoman Tracy Boever said.
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 since then, prompting critics to charge that the agency was protecting industry interests. But an EPA spokeswoman said the delay was due to a string of requirements including scientific review, submitting the report to industry and the time it took to get into a scientific journal.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said the paper was recently 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 yet 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 industry in return for lists of ingredients the makers use in the popcorn and the packaging.
The report, titled “Emissions from Cooking Microwave Popcorn,” is not a study of the health effects of diacetyl or any other fumes on consumers. Instead, it looks at exactly what gases including diacetyl are produced in what amount when consumers make microwave popcorn at home.
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