Democrats Push OSHA to Regulate Worksites with Popcorn Flavoring

September 28, 2007

That buttery taste and smell of microwave popcorn may have caused a deadly lung disease in workers who package it. While there’s no evidence of any danger to the millions of people who eat it, Congress is taking action.

Rather than wait on studies affirming or dispelling the dangers posed by the chemical behind the artificial taste and smell, the House voted Wednesday to have the government regulate food workers’ exposure to it.

Consumers probably won’t notice. Many popcorn makers have already found a flavoring substitute for the chemical in question, diacetyl.

But Democrats said a federal standard needs to be immediately enforced to ensure future workers in the popcorn industry and others aren’t placed in danger.

The lack of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard on diacetyl “has endangered the health of families,” said Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Ohio. “That is why we have to act today. Workers should never have to choose between their health and feeding their families.”

The Bush administration and House Republicans think the Democrats’ bill is premature, and Congress’ interference with OSHA’s work may cause more harm than good.

“We believe that it’s important to give OSHA time to complete a scientific study of diacetyl exposure and to issue a recommended exposure limit for the use of that chemical,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. “Without a complete study, Congress may push manufacturers to use different chemicals that could be even more directly responsible for diseases.”

Diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as butter, cheese and fruits, and the Food and Drug Administration has approved its use as a flavor ingredient. The concern is when workers inhale it in manufacturing settings — either in making the flavoring or adding it to food products ranging from popcorn to pound cakes.

In a number of lawsuits, workers exposed to diacetyl have linked the chemical to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung. Workers suffering from the progressive lung disease can be forced to undergo lung transplants to survive.

The Democrats’ legislation gives OSHA three months to tell microwave popcorn production and packaging establishments and all flavoring manufacturing locations using diacetyl to limit exposure to the chemical, institute air monitoring, medical surveillance and safety labeling; and require the wearing of protective clothing and equipment for workers exposed to it.

Two years after the legislation is signed, the rules would apply everywhere diacetyl is processed or used.

“OSHA has not acted, so today we will,” said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.

The House passed the legislation 260-154. The Senate has not yet considered the bill.

A call to OSHA on Wednesday was not immediately returned.

ConAgra Foods Inc., General Mills Inc. and the American Pop Corn Company already have said they would stop using diacetyl. Together those companies accounted for more than 80 percent of the market for microwave popcorn over the past 12 months, according to the research firm Information Resources, Inc.

Last year, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, issued a report that found several employees at a microwave popcorn plant were diagnosed with lung disease.

NIOSH determined that inhaling the butter flavoring put workers at risk for the lung disease. Since then, OSHA has increased inspections in places that make butter-flavor popcorn, and on Monday announced it had started the rule-making process on diacetyl.


The bill number is H.R. 2693.

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