Popcorn Eater Sues Kroger Claiming Flavoring Caused Lung Ailment

January 17, 2008

A suburban Denver man believed to be the only consumer to develop “popcorn lung” from regular servings of microwave popcorn filed a lawsuit claiming injury from the artificial butter flavoring that previously sickened only popcorn factory workers.

Wayne Watson’s attorney, Kenneth McClain, said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court names The Kroger Co. and two of its divisions: grocery store King Soopers’ parent company, Dillon Companies Inc., and food distributor Inter-American Products Inc.

A spokeswoman for Cincinnati-based Kroger said the company does not comment on lawsuits.

Watson’s case of “popcorn lung” and his two-bags-a-day diet gained national attention last year when doctors at National Jewish Hospital diagnosed him with the rare lung condition that has been linked to the flavor chemical diacetyl.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, states that the companies “failed to warn that preparing microwave popcorn in a microwave oven as intended and smelling the buttery aroma could expose the consumer to an inhalation hazard and a risk of lung injury.”

Popcorn lung, officially called bronchiolitis obliterans, generally has been associated with people who worked in microwave popcorn plants mixing large vats of flavors. Hundreds of workers have said they have severe lung disease or other respiratory illnesses from inhaling diacetyl vapors.

The chemical has been the subject of hundreds of lawsuits against the companies that that produce or use the butter flavoring.

McClain’s firm — Humphrey, Farrington & McClain of Independence, Mo. — is the same one that filed suit on behalf of workers at the Gilster Mary Lee factory in Jasper, Mo. The workers inhaled the fumes from testing hundreds of bags of microwave popcorn a day.

“This is new, but not surprising,” McClain said in a statement. “Workers at the Jasper plant whose only job was to pop microwave popcorn in the quality control department got sick, so it’s not surprising that someone like Mr. Watson could be at risk.”

Diacetyl is a naturally occurring chemical compound that gives butter its flavor. It is also found in cheese and some wines, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and health. It has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a flavor ingredient.

After the workers became ill, new workplace standards were developed that isolated microwaves from workers testing popcorn bags coming off the manufacturing line.

Last month, the nation’s four biggest makers of microwave popcorn announced they were reformulating their recipes to remove the chemical from nearly all their products.

Dr. Cecile Rose, a lung specialist at National Jewish, diagnosed Watson with popcorn lung. She told The Associated Press in September that there was no certain link between the Centennial, Colo., man’s copious popcorn servings and the disease, but she said “the possibility raises concern.”

An investigation by the hospital found factory workers were exposed to diacetyl levels between 0.75 and 4 parts per million. Tests in Watson’s kitchen where the microwave would vent and where he would open popcorn bags showed levels between 0.5 and 3 parts per million, according to the hospital.

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