Reporter Anietra Hamper of Columbus (OH)’s WBNS puts names and faces to the serious health consequences linked with exposure to the butter-flavoring agent diacetyl.  In part I of her six-month investigation, Common Food Flavoring Changed Lives Forever, she introduces us to Cynthia White-Rhoads, Rocky Kline, Dalea Hawkins and Ed Hawkins, who are all former workers of the ConAgra plant in Marion, Ohio, and are suffering from bronchiolitis obliterans.  One former workers says she has lungs of an 85-year-old, another says she coughs constantly and is exhausted all the time, another says performing simple tasks causes him to lose his breath.   It’s bad enough hearing how these individuals’ health is impaired, but then to learn that the workers knew something in the plant was making them sick, but it fell on ConAgra’s deaf ears.

Everybody was sick, coughing, nose bleeds, skin irritations, eye irritations.  …We asked for breathing masks at one time (and were told) they were too expensive. 

The reporter noted that the workers were required to wear hairnets.   Doesn’t that speak volumes??   The company had more regard for their product (a stray hair could sink the Orville Redenbacher or Act II brands (and the profit)), than the lungs of the workers packaging it.

In Part II of the WBNS’ investigation, ‘Popcorn Lung’ Chemical Affecting More Than Factory Workers we meet Mr. Wayne Watson, the first documented case of diacetyl-exposure bronchiolitis obliterans in a consumer.    We first broke the story here on TPH using the letter from respiratory disease specialist Dr. Cecile Rose to the FDA when she informed the agency of Mr. Watson’s diagnosis and the likely exposure culprit.  I recall at the time some news reports and commentaries laughing or even blaming Mr. Watson for his predicament.  As I watched Mr. Watson in this WBNS’ investigation, I nodded as he said:

“Who would reasonably think that popping popcorn in your own home – no matter how it’s packaged – would turn into an agent for toxic lung disease?”

He’s absolutely right.   It was understandable for Mr. Watson to think that cooking a food product in his home EXACTLY how the manufacturer intended would be safe to do.  

Whether consumers are exposed at home or workers are exposed in plants, it’s time for flavoring agents that cause this type of severe lung damage to no longer be shielded with the FDA’s “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) designation.  That’s why SKAPP sent a petition to FDA  in September 2006 asking them to revoke the GRAS designation for diacetyl, and repeated our call in December 2009.   The response we received last month from the FDA was more promising than what we heard previously from the agency.   FDA says:

“Your petition is under active review at this time.  This review will incorporate all the scientific evidence available to the agency and our assessment of its significance for the public health of consumers.   …We also intend to address the issue of diacetyl-containing substitutes in our response.   Although it is highly unusual for the FDA to contemplate food ingredient regulation on the basis of inhalation, we have not ruled out any regulatory option.”

The “basis of inhalation” is the real kicker.  GRAS designations have historically been made based on ingestion hazards, and nobody is claiming that diacetyl or other butter flavoring agents are not safe to eat.  The issue is the risk of harm from inhalation, and for me, a food additive that can cause irreversible lung damage when inhaled (during normal use) cannot in any public health context be “generally recognized as safe.”  The original GRAS definition may date back fifty years, but that shouldn’t mean our regulatory system should be stuck there.