One of my all-time favorite investigative journalist and public health heroes, Andrew Schneider, is writing for the new AOL News venture: Sphere.    Schneider is exceptional because of the dogged way he pursues topics and sticks with them over the long haul—not a couple of weeks or a few months, but for years.  He understands the health and safety regulatory system moves like cold molasses, but never stops asking: why that is, especially when evidence of harm continues to mount, or when we ignore lessons from public health history. 

In “Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Make Popcorn,” Schneider reminds us that two years ago, microwave popcorn manufacturers removed the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl from their product.  Their rapid response followed reports that a heavy user-ingester of extra buttery microwave popcorn had developed the severe lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans.  Schneider now reports:

“government health investigators are reporting that the ‘new, safer, butter substitutes’ used in popcorn and others foods are, in some cases, at least as toxic as what they replaced.  Even the top lawyer for the flavoring industry said his organization has told anyone who would listen that diacetyl substitutes are actually just another form of diacetyl.”

In a script that we’ve all seen before, Schneider notes:

“Those companies, citing competition, repeatedly refuse to discuss what they’re using today to add the butter flavor to what they sell.  But, at their professional conferences, food scientists and flavorists openly discuss that they are using blends called starter distillates and trimmers as substitutes for the rich butter flavors that consumers love so much.”

We learned a few months ago during OSHA’s SBREFA panel on diacetyl that at least one microwave popcorn manufacturer is conducting its own toxicology tests on potential substitute flavoring agents.  The Pop Weaver company is trying to take a precautionary approach, saying in a May 2009 statement to OSHA:

“we were concerned that substituting an unknown, potentially more hazardous substance for diacetyl may not be in our associates’ [workers] best interest.  …So Weaver established a policy that no new flavorings will be introduced without laboratory toxicology testing and evaluation by professional third party providers to determine the chemicals present in the proposed new flavorings.”

On the one hand, I commend Pop Weaver for doing its own toxicology testing to help identify butter-flavoring substitutes that might also be harmful to their employees’ health.  I’ve not heard of any other food manufacturer take their responsibility to protect their employees from flavoring agents as seriously as their concern for the end-users and consumers.     

On the other hand, we don’t know which or how many alternative compounds Pop Weaver has tested and rejected (a good thing); without that information one can’t press their less-proactive competitors from disclosing whether they use these same flavoring chemicals.  And, how do we make sure that a responsible firm like Pop Weaver isn’t penalized for being precautionary?  Or put at an economic disadvantage because they are spending money on the tox testing, while other firms prefer to wait around until they are forced to take action because of regulation or litigation? 

This situation again exposes the silos in which our public health agencies operate.  Diacetyl is designated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS), based on its safety as a food additive, despite the fact that inhalation exposure to it is associated with severe lung disease.   In September 2006, we (SKAPP) filed a petition with the FDA asking the agency to revoke the GRAS designation for diacetyl, noting the compelling evidence of disease caused by breathing diacetyl vapors and the lack of data revealing an exposure level below which the chemical does not cause lung disease.  After three years with no FDA action, we wrote last week to the new FDA commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, MD, asking her for a status report on FDA’s scientific review of diacetyl, a timeline for next steps, and again, urged the cancellation of diacetyl’s GRAS designation.

Of course, Schneider’s reporting of the diacetyl saga also extends to the agencies responsible for protecting the public’s health and safety.  As we also reported on The Pump Handle (here,) Labor Secretary Solis announced her regulatory agenda for the coming year.  There was little sense of urgency with respect to workers’ exposed to diacetyl.   In classic Schneider-style, he introduces us yet again to another victim of regulatory delay: Ms. Elaine Khoury. 

“Khoury worked for Blockbuster Video for five years in Florida and Missouri.  As the store manager, every Friday and Saturday, she would pop 30 bags of microwave popcorn in a small back room, then empty them into a popcorn machine to give the appearance that they had been freshly popped.  Last year, a lung biopsy at the Mayo Clinic confirmed that she had full-blown bronchiolitis obliterans.  She is now waiting for a lung transplant.”

Schneider describes Ms. Khoury’s exposure as a “consumer case,” (for FDA) where I’d describe it as an occupational exposure (for OSHA).   Either way, it’s a compelling example that our system of public health safeguards still isn’t working.  Read all of Schneider’s latest reporting on diacetyl in AOL’s Sphere at “Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Make Popcorn.”

Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University School of Public Health.  She first came to know Andrew Schneider when he was reporting for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the public health disaster caused by W.R. Grace in Libby, Montana.