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Popcorn Concerns Put Work Safety Back on Agenda

(By Keith Bendis For The Washington Post)

Last month, the issue's visibility increased after a Colorado man, who ate two or more bags a day of microwave popcorn, was diagnosed with popcorn lung disease.

The FDA has said there was no evidence that "consumption of diacetyl (as opposed to inhalation) is unsafe."

The House bill, which passed 260 to 154 on Sept. 26, would require OSHA to complete an interim diacetyl standard for workers within 90 days and a broader one in two years.

The recent moves to regulate the chemical could affect popcorn sales, which total 16 billion quarts a year in the United States, according to the Popcorn Board, which represents popcorn processors.

Microwave popcorn makers such as ConAgra Foods of Omaha, the largest producer, and Weaver Popcorn of Indianapolis said in recent weeks that they will eliminate use of the flavoring.

Diacetyl accounted for a small portion of the $3.5 billion in U.S. sales the flavoring industry reported last year.

John Hallagan, general counsel for the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association in the District, said the group warned its members in 2004 about the dangers of inhalation, how to protect workers and how to properly label the product. He first met with OSHA officials about diacetyl last year.

In April, OSHA announced a "national emphasis program," including inspection of facilities at highest risk. Seven plants are being inspected and the rest will be by the end of the year, said Labor's Snare.

Besides opening the rulemaking, OSHA issued guidance to manufacturers, importers and employers about control measures, training and updating labels with hazard information. Others say OSHA's move is too little, too late.

Two labor unions and some House Democrats asked the agency last year to issue an emergency standard. OSHA officials "forfeited their right to suggest that they will set the time and the tempo and the urgency of the protection of these workers and their families," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who is chairman of the House committee overseeing the agency. "We are stepping in here."

Until the recent flurry in Washington, workers had turned to the legal system.

Kenneth McClain, a lawyer with Humphrey Farrington & McClain in Independence, Mo., said that since 2001 he has represented some 600 workers with diacetyl claims, winning $52.7 million in jury verdicts against flavoring makers in four cases. Undisclosed settlements were reached on 120 more, and he has another 500 cases filed, he said.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist at Bloomberg News. She can be reached

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