ConAgra, Weaver to take diacetyl out of popcorn

by Jeff Gelski
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OMAHA — ConAgra Foods, Inc. and Weaver Popcorn Co., Inc., two of North America’s largest popcorn manufacturers, are eliminating diacetyl, a buttery-like flavoring, from their products while the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States recommends reducing the use of diacetyl in the manufacture of butter flavors for microwave popcorn.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other health groups have investigated the possibility of diacetyl causing lung disease and other respiratory problems in workers at popcorn manufacturing plants. Consumers of microwave popcorn were thought to be safe until published reports on Sept. 4 said Dr. Cecile Rose, a physician at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration. The letter explained how a consumer’s daily preparation of butter-flavored microwave popcorn may be related to the consumer’s lung disease. The F.D.A. recognizes diacetyl as Generally Recognized as Safe.

Indianapolis-based Weaver Popcorn announced Aug. 28 it had eliminated diacetyl from its popcorn brands, including Pop Weaver, Trail’s End and about a half-dozen private labels it produces. Pop Weaver represents about 20% of the U.S. microwave popcorn market.

Omaha-based ConAgra is the largest manufacturer of microwave popcorn in North America and sells it under two retail brands, Orville Redenbacher’s and Act II, said Stephanie Childs, company spokesperson. ConAgra decided a few months ago to eliminate diacetyl from its microwave popcorn but did not make an announcement then, Ms. Childs said.

"Our decision was unrelated to the Denver case," she said. "However, we are interested in learning more about that."

ConAgra wants diacetyl out of all its popcorn within a year.

"We want to provide our employees with the safest possible work environment and address the consumer perception of risk related to diacetyl," Ms. Childs said. "We are fully confident that microwave popcorn is safe for consumers to prepare and consume at home."

Washington-based F.E.M.A. issued a statement on diacetyl Sept. 4.

"As noted by National Jewish, we cannot be sure that the patient’s exposure from the daily preparation of butter flavored microwave popcorn caused the patient’s illness," the F.E.M.A. said. "However, out of an abundance of caution F.E.M.A. recommends that its members who manufacture butter flavors containing diacetyl for use in microwave popcorn consider reducing the diacetyl content of these flavors to the extent possible."

Diacetyl is naturally occurring in a variety of foods, including butter, milk, cheese, fruit, wine and beer, according to the F.E.M.A. Butter flavors used in microwave popcorn generally contain more diacetyl than other types of flavors.

Diacetyl has been investigated as a possible cause of popcorn plant workers developing bronchiolitis obliterans. Respiratory symptoms of the disease include cough and shortness of breath, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

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