OMAHA - The nation's four biggest makers of microwave popcorn have removed a flavoring chemical linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers from nearly all their products.
The companies say all their microwave popcorn recipes should be changed by January.
But it might take several months for the reformulated popcorn to replace all the older varieties on store shelves.
In August, the Weaver Popcorn Co. of Indianapolis said it had removed the butter flavor diacetyl from all its microwave popcorn varieties.
ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha; General Mills Inc. of Golden Valley, Minn.; and the American Pop Corn Co. of Sioux City, Iowa, all promised in September to change their microwave popcorn recipes. Those three companies sell Orville Redenbacher, Act II, Pop Secret, and Jolly Time microwave popcorn.
"We want to assure our consumers they can continue to enjoy their favorite popcorn with complete confidence," said ConAgra's Stan Jacot, who oversees popcorn marketing for the company.
The chemical diacetyl has been linked to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare life-threatening disease often called popcorn lung.
Diacetyl occurs naturally in foods such as butter, cheese, and fruits, and the FDA has approved its use as a flavor ingredient.
Federal agencies and lawmakers have taken note of the problems with diacetyl.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has stepped-up its inspections of microwave popcorn plants that use the flavoring and a program to minimize or eliminate the workers' exposure to chemical hazards.
This fall, the House of Representatives approved a bill that would limit worker exposure to diacetyl in plants that use the chemical. The Senate has not yet considered the bill.
This year, a pulmonary specialist at Denver's National Jewish Medical and Research Center wrote to federal agencies to say doctors at the center believe they have the first case of a consumer who developed lung disease from the fumes of microwaving popcorn several times a day for years.
But generally popcorn lung 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.
More than 500 lawsuits are pending against the companies that produce or use the butter flavoring. About $50 million has been awarded in verdicts that were later settled for confidential amounts. Another 100 cases have been settled that reportedly involve tens of millions of dollars.
The Washington, D.C.-based Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association has said consumers shouldn't worry about eating microwave popcorn as long as they follow directions, which typically include a warning to open bags of popcorn away from the face. The concern instead focuses on workers inhaling it in manufacturing facilities - either in making the flavoring or adding it to food products ranging from popcorn to pound cakes.
The food companies have not pinpointed exactly when the new popcorn will be available at all stores because the timetable depends on how much popcorn a store sells and how much of the product stores keep in their own warehouses.
ConAgra spokeswoman Regina Demars said the company has already changed the recipe for its Orville Redenbacher and Act II popcorn, but she didn't know how long it would take for stores to sell all the popcorn with diacetyl.
ConAgra says the new popcorn started showing up in stores this month. Consumers will be able to spot the newer popcorn because ConAgra will print "No Added Diacetyl" on the box.
General Mills, which sells but doesn't make Pop Secret popcorn, removed diacetyl from its popcorn in October, spokesman Tom Forsythe said yesterday.
A spokeswoman for American Pop Corn, which makes Jolly Time, said all but one of its products had been converted to new flavoring recipes. Tracy Boever said that last popcorn product will be changed by Jan. 1.