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Popcorn additive may have caused serious lung ailment

September 06, 2007|From Times Wire Services

CHICAGO — At least one man who ate several bags of butter-flavored microwave popcorn each day has developed a life-threatening lung disease possibly caused by an additive in the popcorn, his doctor says, and U.S. regulators have launched an investigation.

The Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday that it had received a report from a Denver doctor saying that the man's lung disease was similar to an illness affecting workers in plants where microwave popcorn is made, FDA spokesman Michael Herndon said.

"We are currently evaluating the recent information on the association of inhalation of the food additive diacetyl with lung disease, and are carefully considering the safety and regulatory issues it raises," Herndon said.

"This is the first time we're being made aware of a potential consumer case. We're taking [the doctor's] report very seriously," said Bernadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Omaha-based ConAgra Foods Inc., maker of Orville Redenbacher and Act II microwave popcorn brands, said Wednesday that it would drop diacetyl from its butter-flavored microwave popcorn in the "near future" to safeguard its employees.

The additive, which gives microwave popcorn a buttery taste, has been linked to a rare lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans, also known as popcorn lung, found in plant workers.

In April, the CDC said workers at factories that make food flavorings as well as popcorn factories were at risk of contracting the hard-to-treat condition, which causes symptoms such as cough and shortness of breath and steadily worsens.

Last month, Weaver Popcorn Co., maker of Pop Weaver microwave popcorn, said it had removed diacetyl from its microwave popcorn, in part to address concerns about the ingredient.

Dr. Cecile Rose, a lung specialist at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, said a patient might have contracted the disease from the consumption of several bags of butter-flavored microwave popcorn daily for 10 years.

The patient, Wayne Watson, 53, of Centennial, Colo., liked the smell of popcorn so much that he would "open and inhale from freshly popped bags" two or three times a day, said hospital spokesman William Allstetter.

Rose said in a July 18 letter to the FDA that there was "no other plausible explanation" for Watson's condition. But the doctor said Wednesday that no definite link had been established between Watson's popcorn consumption and his lung disease.

Still, she said, "the possibility raises public health concerns."

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