Flavor Danger | Food News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published April 28, 2007 at 2:56 p.m.

I came across a scary article on MSNBC today called Food-Flavoring Workers at Risk for Lung Disease.

Basically, workers in plants that manufacture artificial flavors are at risk for a lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans, which is irreversible and can be fatal. The disease seems to be caused mainly by a chemical called diacetyl, which is used to make non-buttery foods taste buttery, and is dangerous when heated and inhaled.

In 2000, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) linked diacetyl to lung disease and recommended that "workers be protected from this hazard." The NIOSH website also says, "Most chemicals used in flavorings have not been tested for respiratory toxicity via the inhalation route." But NIOSH doesn't have the power to regulate the substance -- OSHA does. And they don't do so at the moment.

In July of 2006, 42 "top scientists" sent a letter to OSHA urging thebody to "protect workers," but the matter is still "underconsideration."

Today, seven years after the problem was discovered, factory workers are continuing to breathe the stuff.  Meanwhile, thousands of happy consumers are chowing down on microwave popcorn, butterscotch candy and other products made with the diacetyl.

Clearly, part of the problem here is regulation and worker safety, but it seems to me that there's another one, too. Dairy farms in Vermont and elsewhere are failing left and right, but I'll bet the factories that manufacture fake butter are thriving. Are we really too busy or lazy to melt real butter and put it on plain popcorn? What if Americans stopped eating snacks laced with products like "Exceed Plus 4010N," a "natural" cheese flavor by Kraft that "enhance[s] a product’s overall cheese profile," and instead ate some nice cheddar, accompanied by a crusty baguette from an artisan baker and an apple. Where do you want your food dollars to go?   

Working on a farm isn't easy, but I'd take it over working at a flavor factory any day.