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.”


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.

August 29, 2008

More tests demanded of ‘super sweetener’

Filed under: Environmental health issues,FDA,Food Safety,GRAS — Andrew Schneider @ 15:39

Apparently, Pepsi and Coca-Cola may be introducing new beverages sweetened with an extract from a Latin American plant that the locals call sugar leaf, but the PhDs say is stevia. Those selling it commercially have named it Rebiana and claim it’s between 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

No so fast, cautions the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit food safety advocate says a new 26-page report by toxicologists at UCLA states that several laboratory tests show that the sweetener “causes mutations and DNA damage, which raises the prospect that it causes cancer.”

The organization wrote the Food and Drug Administration saying that additional testing is needed.

“A safe, natural, high-potency sweetener would be a welcome addition to the food supply,” said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “But the FDA needs to be as sure as possible that rebiana is safe before allowing it into foods that would be consumed by tens of millions of people. It would be tragic if the sweetener turned out to cause cancer or other problems.”

Two companies — Cargill and Merisant — have told the FDA that rebiana should designated as “Generally Regarded as Safe,” or GRAS, which is a classification given less scrutiny by the FDA than ordinary food additives. The Center says a third company, Wisdom Natural Brands, has already declared that its stevia-based sweetener is GRAS and will market it without giving evidence to, or even notifying, the FDA.

Yes, you read it correctly. Corporations can hire anyone or even task their janitorial staff to evaluate the safety of a food additive. There are thousands of products out there that have never been tested by anyone beyond “experts” paid by the company selling the product.

Want an example? How about diacetyl, the butter flavoring that has sickened hundreds of popcorn and flavoring plant workers, and caused the deaths of several.

Diacetyl remains on FDA’s list of products considered Generally Regarded as Safe and concerned scientists and physicians who have tried to get our vacationing lawmakers to demand that FDA and OSHA do something about it, are often turned away by legislative staffers who can’t believe that companies alone can be making these vital public health decisions.

I have a hard believing it myself, but it’s true.

As with so many harmful products, such as asbestos or benzine or hundreds of others, we are left with a vacuum created by legislators refusing to do battle for public health and the void is filled by trial lawyers holding the offending corporations accountable with settlements in hundreds of millions of dollars.

Seems like an odd way to protect the public health. But maybe that’s just me.

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