andrew schneider investigates

May 28, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: New butter flavoring for popcorn and other food products may be no safer than the lung-injuring diacetyl it replaces.

Scientists worry that the “new,” “completely safe” butter flavoring used on popcorn and in other foods may be as dangerous as the lung-destroying chemical, called diacetyl, that it replaced.

Diacetyl-linked jury verdicts of tens of millions of dollars for injured flavoring workers and the diagnoses of lung damage in at least three popcorn-loving consumers forced popcorn packers and other food processors to stop using the chemical butter-flavoring two years ago.

Orville Redenbacher rose from the grave to proudly announce in a TV ad that the company’s popcorn was now diacetyl-free. And other manufacturers plastered that message in large type on the side of their packages.

popcorn-bowlAWhen asked in the last two years how they were getting the buttery flavor consumers want without diacetyl, the largest popcorn makers answered with a “no comment,” saying the secret flavoring was safe, but proprietary.

Fortunately, a group of government health investigators at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health have begun lifting the veil of corporate secrecy.

“Two possible substitutes are starter distillate and diacetyl trimmer,” NIOSH Drs. Kathleen Kreiss and Nancy Sahakian just wrote in a newly released book, “Advances in Food and Nutrition Research.

“The distillate is a diacetyl-containing product of a fermentation process. The trimmer is a molecule containing three  diacetyl  molecules,” they wrote. “The inclusion of these alternative substances neither eliminate diacetyl nor assure safety for workers.’’

Kreiss, chief of NIOSH’s Field Studies Branch, also talked about the popcorn advertisements in informal remarks prepared for the American Thoracic Society conference earlier this month in San Diego.

“The wording here (no added diacetyl) is telling,” said Kreiss, whose team of worker health and safety investigators were the first to respond to the reports of disease at Midwest popcorn plants.

In the presentation to the specialists in respiratory disease, Kreiss discussed the flavoring to which many food producers had switched.

“The easiest substitute for the chemical diacetyl is starter distillate, a fermentation product of milk which contains up to 4 percent diacetyl. The chemical may not be added, but diacetyl is still in butter-flavored popcorn,” she explained.

She said some of the substitutes are better able to penetrate to the deepest parts of the lung and are unlikely to be safer to inhale than the original diacetyl.

Physicians, scientists and industrial hygienists at NIOSH’s Division of Respiratory Disease Studies are working hard on multiple efforts to investigate the possible toxicity of butter flavoring chemicals being used as a substitute for the diacetyl.

“We’re trying to identify the mechanism of diacetyl-induced injury. And if that happens, it will help us identify other potentially hazardous compounds workers may be exposed to in the flavoring industry,” said Dr. Ann Hubbs, a veterinary pathologist in NIOSH’s Health Effects Laboratory Division.

Hubbs told me last week,  “We are trying hard to answer the question of why diacetyl — and potentially the related substances — are so very toxic,”

Kreiss and her team have responded to plants using flavorings throughout the country. They have watched patiently as OSHA first ignored and then moved haltingly to comply with congressional orders and union pleas to develop diacetyl exposure standards that would protect workers.

But even though President Obama’s new team at the Labor Department promised speedy action on diacetyl standards, many public health and occupational medicine experts worry that it may be too little, coming too late.

“As regulatory action develops, the flavor industry has introduced diacetyl substitutes, which might not be regulated by a diacetyl standard now on the drawing board,” Kreiss said in notes accompanying her slide presentation to the chest doctors.

Dr. Celeste Monforton and her colleagues at George Washington University’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health have been following the diacetyl issue for years.

She echoes NIOSH and says that OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration must pay attention to the substitutes in its rulemaking if workers and consumers are to be protected.

“We know far too little about the the substitutes to diacetyl or reformulated diacetyl-compounds that food manufacturers are now using, or planning to use,” she told me this week.

As a part of its rule making, OSHA must insist that the manufacturers provide information on the chemical composition and toxicity testing of their substitutes, she said.

“We are dealing with the safety of workers and consumers and secrecy cannot be justified,” Monforton said.

“This potential danger goes well beyond just popcorn.”


March 15, 2009

Popcorn flavoring victims dies as jury awards $7.5 million, but government does little to prevent future diacetyl exposure

Ronald Kuiper died last week, just one day before a jury decided that a maker of chemical butter flavoring owed him $7.5 million for destruction of his lungs.

Kuiper was 64 when I interviewed him five years ago, just before doctors confirmed what he told me he already knew – that he had bronchiolitis obliterans, which is also called “popcorn lung.”

Obviously, the jury agreed that it was diacetyl that was killing him when he testified briefly before them.

popcorn0121In the 90s, inhalation of this synthetic butter flavoring had been blamed for destroying the lungs of hundreds of workers in microwave popcorn plants throughout the Midwest. Included was American Pop Corn, the plant in Sioux City, Iowa, where Kuiper worked as a butter-flavor mixer.
The verdict, which took jurors six days to reach, was against Givaudan Flavors Corp. of Cincinnati. Earlier, Kuiper and his wife had also sued three other mega-flavor makers – International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., Flavors of North America, Inc. and Sensient Flavors, Inc.

I’m told they paid the Kuipers without going to trial.
Kuiper contacted me after he read articles I’d written in Baltimore for The Sun on sick workers I’d found in flavoring, food processing and other plants across the country where diacetyl is used.

The illness was in its early stages when Kuiper and I spoke, but he was already having respiratory problems and paused often to catch his breath.  Even back then he said it felt like he was suffocating, breathing through a plastic bag.
He told me he was glad I’d reported on what diacetyl was doing to other innocent workers but that he couldn’t understand why the government – OSHA and the Food and Drug Administration – hadn’t tested the safety of the chemical flavoring, which is used worldwide.
There was a minor media frenzy after reports that consumers had contracted bronchiolitis obliterans from inhaling fumes from microwave popcorn they prepared at home – first, on one man and then another who allegedly had the irreversible lung disease.
I’m told a third case is about to go public and that two more consumers, one on each coast, are undergoing medical screening for the same symptoms. All told their physicians that they ate at least four to eight bags of popcorn a day.
America is the world’s largest producer of microwave popcorn, and most of the manufacturers say they have removed the diacetyl from the products. But that’s not enough for unions representing food service workers and cooks. They, along with dozens of scientists, have asked OSHA for emergency safeguards and exposure limits. Congress ordered protective action from OSHA.

Little has happened.
Kuiper died before getting his wish. Neither OSHA nor the FDA have tested the safety of the flavoring. And neither agency restricts or monitors its use even though food scientists estimate that today more than 14,000 individual products use diacetyl for butter flavor.
Kuiper’s lawyer, Kenneth McClain, has settled scores of suits for other popcorn workers for verdicts as high as $20 million.  McClain told the Des Moines Register that more than 300 other diacetyl cases are pending nationwide.
Public health specialists believe if the government fails to control the use of diacetyl, lawyers will be busy for years to come because lives have been destroyed or ended.

For more details, check out the public health wizards gathered around the pump handle at

For update, twitter asinvestigates.

February 9, 2009

Flavoring maker fights on to keep safety inspectors out

At times like these I think I should change the name of my blog to “Tales of the Absurd.”

This example centers on a year-long court battle between an Indianapolis flavor manufacturer and the government’s top occupational safety investigators. The fact that the company has gone to federal court to keep the federal health and safety wizards from protecting the workers from a sometimes lethal chemical strikes many as well beyond absurd.

At the heart of the dispute is the health of 200 workers at Sensient Flavors International and a chemical mixture that they use called diacetyl, which has killed several and sickened hundreds of workers in plants across the country that use the synthetic butter flavoring. That would include thousands of candies, cookies, baked goods, prepared food products and cooking oils and sprays.

On the other side of the courtroom are the feds – physicians, toxicologists and industrial hygienists – who work for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Their battle to control exposure to his chemical concoction soared into prominence in August —-2000 when the NIOSH team was called to investigate an outbreak of bronchiolitis obliterans in former workers of Missouri microwave-popcorn plant.

Within months, they found the same irreversible lung disease in other workers at popcorn plants in the Midwest.

The fight with Sensient began almost a year ago when the local Teamsters union representing the plant’s workers asked NIOSH, the worker-safety research arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to inspect the plant, which it did.

But when I interviewed Teamster health and safety officials last year they said the company had altered the production process while the feds were inspecting and taking air samples and that the investigators failed to get an accurate idea of the conditions.

NIOSH told Sensient that it wanted to return and take more samples and interview additional workers because “pulmonary abnormalities” uncovered during its first inspection demanded a “second and more extensive examination,” an agency official told me.

The- Indianapolis Business Journal said that Sensient acknowledges federal law gave NIOSH authority to conduct the first inspection. But it says no new information had emerged that would give the feds the right to go through the “highly invasive process” again.

“NIOSH is attempting to use Sensient’s facility as its own personal laboratory,” the company complained in a federal lawsuit filed in July. The company demanded in the lawsuit that the second inspection be blocked.

Dr. David Egilman, a occupational medicine specialist and Clinical Associated Professor at Brown University, who has been examining patients harmed by diacetyl since the first popcorn cases, calls Sensient’s position absurd and dangerous.

“If any one is experimenting, it is Sensient and the guinea pigs are their workers. It is just outrageous that this company that has never tested the toxicity of any of the chemicals it puts in our food has gall to block government researchers efforts to determine if they stuff they are adding to food will kill or injure us,” said Egilman, who has testified on behalf of the injured workers in many of the lawsuits they brought against flavoring companies.

The legal game playing continues in federal court with both sides battling whether discovery requests are too broad or too narrow and other courtroom tactics.

Meanwhile, the workers continue to mix the diacetyl into flavorings that are being shipped to scores of food-processing plants where other workers will be exposed to the faux butter flavoring.

In related news, after Senate and House hearings, union demands and insistent bellowing of safety activists, OSHA has taken the first step in actually doing something to prevent workers from having diacetyl destroy their lungs.

The agency has asked for public comments on issues related to occupational exposure to diacetyl and food flavorings containing diacetyl. Someone has already submitted the P-I story from 2007 of diacetyl exposure to professional and home cooks from butters, sprays and oils containing the food flavoring. This is a link to the PI’s story on diacetyl.

There is no indication that the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the use of diacetyl years ago without any agency testing, will order any testing of the food flavoring.

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