By David Michaels

“The cooperation of ConAgra Foods and the EPA has yielded a comprehensive understanding of butter flavor emissions for consumers.”

- Patricia Verduin, Senior Vice President Product Quality & Development, ConAgra Foods, Inc. in a November 29, 2004 letter to Paul Gilman, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, U.S. EPA

As regular readers of this blog know, my colleagues and I at the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) have been pushing for regulation of occupational exposure to artificial butter flavoring, which has been linked to severe lung disease in workers from microwave popcorn plants (including the Orville Redenbacher plant in Marion, Ohio), flavor manufacturers, and other facilities. (See our case study on the topic for details.) We’ve also been trying to get an answer to the question that many people ask us when they learn about our work on this issue: are consumers who pop bags of microwave popcorn and inhale the buttery vapors also at risk?

The Spring/Summer 2003 issue of EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Research Update (PDF here; see page 5) announced the EPA was conducting a study to answer that very question – specifically, “to identify and quantify contaminants emitted while popping and opening a bag of microwave popcorn.” In July of 2006, after I inquired about the status of the study, the Chief of the EPA’s Indoor Environment Management Branch informed me that they anticipated sending a manuscript of the study to a peer-reviewed journal. I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the study and related materials, and I recently received a packet of documents from EPA. It did not contain the results of the study – those, I’m told, will be published in a journal soon – but it did contain an interesting letter from ConAgra, the manufacturer of the Orville Redenbacher brand of microwave popcorn, to the EPA.

The letter, dated November 11, 2004, is from Patricia Verduin, Senior Vice President Product Quality & Development, ConAgra Foods, Inc. to Paul Gilman, Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development, U.S. EPA. It references the study on microwave popcorn emissions and begins:

We want to thank the U.S. EPA for taking an interest in the consumer health and safety of butter flavorings in the Microwave (MW) Popcorn products marketed in the USA. As the market leader in this category, we firmly believe in the importance of assuring the consumer health and safety of this product category. We support the EPA’s efforts and, as you may well be aware, have been working hand in hand with your Indoor Environment Management Branch of NRMRL to create the knowledge needed to assure the safety of these flavorings.

The MW Popcorn market is a substantial snack food category topping 3 billion bags annually and over $1 billion in retail value. This product category is directly responsible for the employment of 5,000 workers and supports a significant portion of the agricultural sector of our economy. We believe that it is imperative that the health and safety of this product be assured to the extent possible within the very near future. Continued uncertainty affects consumer confidence and the long-term viability of the product category.

Emails in the FOIA packet shed some light on the “hand in hand” work between ConAgra and the EPA’s Environmental Management Branch; evidently, ConAgra was conducting its own testing, similar to EPA’s, and sought EPA scientists’ input on their methods. The letter suggests that ConAgra had, in fact, conducted its research and come up with some results:

Throughout the past year, in order to fully assess the consumer health and safety of the butter flavors in MW popcorn and to complement the work of the EPA, ConAgra Foods, Inc., retained consultative laboratory services to ascertain the point source of compounds of interest and develop a migration mass balance understanding. We also formed a panel of experts that developed a Consumer Exposure Risk Index to address the potential health concerns of the identified migrants. The expertise of the panel included inhalation toxicology, chemical and structure activity, and pulmonology/occupational medicine.

It’s good to know that ConAgra has developed a Consumer Exposure Risk Index for butter flavors in microwave popcorn. Since, as they note, continued uncertainty about the health risks of butter flavor affects consumer confidence, why hasn’t this information been shared with consumers? ConAgra’s expert panel did its work in 2004. I hope the manufacturer of Orville Redenbacher’s brand soon releases the information it has gathered on the risks to consumers from breathing the vapors coming off of bags of microwaved popcorn.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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