By Liz Borkowski 

As David Michaels reported yesterday, the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act will come up for a vote in the House some time this week. The legislation will force OSHA to issue a standard that will minimize workers’ exposure to diacetyl, the butter flavoring chemical that’s been causing severe, irreversible lung disease in workers from food and flavoring plants.

Why hasn’t OSHA acted to address diacetyl exposure, even though they’ve known about the problem for several years? It seems that these days, top regulatory-agency officials are more interested in a “voluntary compliance strategy” than in actually, well, regulating.

One of the main problems with the voluntary approach is that it’s very unlikely to convince all of the employers to take the necessary steps. Sure, it didn’t take regulation to get Pop Weaver and ConAgra to announce that they’re removing diacetyl from their microwave popcorn products (perhaps just the prospect of regulation did the trick). On the other hand, Kraft has just provided a timely example of a company that seems to need a more forceful kind of persuasion.

Lorraine Heller at Food Navigator reports:

Kraft Food Ingredients has introduced a new toasted butter flavor, which the firm says can be used in a range of applications to achieve a butter taste without the caloric content.

Golden Toasted Butter, a dairy-free spray-dried flavor, can be dry-blended into applications without any special processing needs, said the company.

The ingredient has been tested for use in baked goods, such as bread, crackers and biscuits, as well as in cheese applications, such as sauces and seasonings.  According to the firm, it could also be used in any application that seeks a toasted butter flavor – for example prepared meats, vegetables, soups, batters and snacks.

[…]

The company did confirm that the standard version of its new flavor contains the ingredient diacetyl, a common ingredient in butter flavoring, but one that has repeatedly been linked to lung disease in employees of manufacturing plants where it is used.

Why introduce such a product? Because it can “help improve the nutritional profile of products by reducing their calorie content” and provide cost benefits to manufacturers who might otherwise be stung by “the current high dairy prices.”

Why introduce a new product that contains diacetyl? Evidently the needs of the customer cannot be ignored, even when workers’ lungs are at stake:

KFI told FoodNavigator-USA.com that it is addressing the potential diacetyl concern by looking at formulating diacetyl-free versions of its ingredient.  In fact, one such version has already been developed, and is currently in testing stages.

“To some customers diacetyl is not an issue, to others it is.  We’re moving forward towards formulating solutions to meet customer needs,” KFI flavorist Susan Parker told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

As long as companies continue to make this kind of bad decision, we’re going to need regulation to limit the harm they cause.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.
 

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