Butter-flavored microwave popcorn has long been a consumer favorite, but the chemical that gives it that buttery flavor – diacetyl – has caused serious lung impairment, known as “popcorn lung,” so called because many cases have occurred among factory workers who make the product.
This is a concern for workers and consumers alike. On October 17, 2007, NCL's Executive Director Sally Greenberg attended a “roundtable discussion” outside Washington DC called by Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to discuss “popcorn lung” disease.
"I went because I wanted to hear these federal officials explain why they haven’t done anything yet to protect workers from “popcorn lung” despite having become aware of the problem years ago," said Greenberg. "I never heard a good explanation, but OSHA did say it would look at regulating the use of diacetyl. I also went out of concern for consumers who eat microwave popcorn and are therefore exposed to the chemical that has made workers sick."
The government called this meeting after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 2693) ordering OSHA to develop interim standards limiting diacetyl exposure by workers in flavor manufacturing plants and microwave popcorn factories.
OSHA officials, scientists, environmental health specialists, labor union representatives, and lawyers representing workers who were exposed to diacetyl were all at this meeting. One of those workers, a worker from Missouri named Eric Peoples, was there, and he was wearing his breathing apparatus, having contracted lung disease during the short 1 ½ years he worked at a Jasper, MO plant making butter-flavored popcorn.
In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted an investigation of the Jasper plant. Peoples and 8 of his fellow employees, who had worked in the plant anywhere from 8 months to 17 years, were diagnosed with “popcorn lung,” known in the medical community as “brochiolitis obliterans.” Five of the employees had worked in the room where butter flavorings and oil were mixed. The other four had worked on packaging lines where popcorn and the oil/flavorings are added to microwaveable bags and packaged for shipment. All of the employees experienced similar symptoms, including progressive shortness of breath, persistent cough, and unusual fatigue. Five of the nine employees were placed on a lung transplant candidate list, and one of the employees died in April 2006 before receiving a lung transplant. She had worked for 18 months at the plant during the mid-1990s. NIOSH surveyed other plants and identified six additional employees with similar “popcorn lung” symptoms.
So we know the production of butter-flavored popcorn involving diacetyl isn’t perfectly safe for workers, and the government is starting to do something about it.
Are the products safe for consumers?
In late 2007, NCL staff called six different makers of microwave popcorn, using the toll-free customer service phone numbers we found on the box. These included Con Agra (makers of Act II, Orville Redenbacher and Jiffy Pop brands), JollyTime, Pop Weaver, Little Bear Foods, Newman’s Own, and Black Jewell.
One of the companies had a recorded greeting reassuring callers that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers, while advising that the company is phasing out the use of diacetyl because of concerns about worker health. None of the popcorn boxes we bought named “diacetyl” in the ingredient list. Instead, diacetyl is included in the catch-all term “natural and artificial flavorings”.
This is what NCL learned:
- All companies told us that any butter-flavored microwave popcorn contains diacetyl, although the ingredient list does not name the chemical.
- All companies claim diacetyl is safe for consumers.
- All companies told us they would begin phasing out diacetyl, some as quickly as in the next month.
- Popcorn already popped in bags doesn’t contain diacetly.
Despite their claims that diacetyl is safe for consumers, NCL is leery of butter-flavored microwave popcorn. The industry’s claims that consumers aren’t at risk from casual consumption aren’t convincing, because the assertion is not based on research on the consumer effect of airborne diacetyl. Just ask the Denver man who ate several bags a day and was diagnosed with diminished lung capacity caused by breathing the microwave fumes. Tests on the air in his home were said to yield surprising high levels of diacetyl. Diacetyl is being phased out of the production of microwave popcorn; in the meantime, for popcorn lovers, there are many good alternatives to microwave butter-flavor popcorn available to consumers right now.
NCL recommends that consumers call the companies and get their own answers about butter flavor microwave popcorn. The numbers are on the box. Ask about consumer exposure to diacetyl and any hazards that might present, and while you’re at it, ask what they are doing to reduce worker exposure to the chemical while they are phasing it out of their microwave popcorn.