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Butter Nuts

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Author: the Inkslinger

Returning to the blogosphere after a refreshing holiday hiatus spent largely away from all issues green (‘cept for that tree in the middle of my living room…), I’m finding a lot of news and other items to catch up on. For no real reason other than it was the first thing I encountered this morning, I’ll start with this item, which I think aptly illustrates the dubious art of corporate responsibility misdirection.

Here’s the deal: A week or so before Christmas, ConAgra Foods announced that it was joining three other microwave popcorn manufacturers, General Mills, the American Pop Corn Company and Weave Popcorn Company, in removing a butter flavoring ingredient called diacetyl from their products. You may have heard about this. Workers at microwave popcorn factories have been suffering devastating lung disease that’s been traced to diacetyl fumes in the air where they work.

So manufacturers, facing a boatload of lawsuits and bad PR, have yanked the ingredient from their products.

"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.

That’s the spin. Don’t worry. We’re on it. Keep on popping. Except not quite. First of all, this imbroglio has been brewing for well over a year and it seems fairly clear that the companies weren’t going to move on it until they had a substitute ingredient ready to go at a similar cost. Until it was clear prices wouldn’t have to go up and/or sales wouldn’t have to go down, they didn’t do anything. Like simply pull butter flavored varieties off the market, which would have been the real right thing to do if your first concern was really consumer and worker health. Sure, we’d all have to forgo butter flavored microwave popcorn for a while, but what price health? Seems a fair trade.

Second and more importantly, ConAgra and the others are totally missing the point here. Maybe deliberately, maybe not. I can’t say. But I can say this: Factory air quality concerns aside, the real problem with microwave popcorn from a consumer standpoint is not the diacetyl it contains. Enjoying an occasional bag of the nuked popcorn isn’t likely to expose anyone to the kind of levels of diacetyl that cause harm. It’s a miniscule if not nonexistent threat. You have to breathe this stuff hour after hour day after day to get sick. I can think of ten other indoor air pollutants off the top of my head that I’m at least 1000% more worried about. No. The real problem with microwave pop corn is the perfluorochemicals popcorn pouch linings use to prevent oil leakage. They can and do leach into the popcorn itself when its cooked, and that’s not funny. In fact, it’s quite a bit unfunnier than a little diacetyl in your popcorn steam.

As far as consumers are concerned (and I do not in any way mean to downplay worker concerns about diacetyl exposures, which are quite different and quite serious), diacetyl is a corporate responsibility red herring of sorts. It’s like worrying about sugar ants on your counters while termites are devouring the crossbeams holding up the kitchen floor. In a perfect world, your kitchen would be bug-free, sure, but while ConAgra is swatting at largely harmless ants, the real problem is still out there on the loose chomping away at public health.

Companies that engage in this kind of kill-the-bad-behavior-in-the-spotlight-but-ignore-the-one-in-the-shadows behavior will never achieve the kind of corporate responsibility we need. And any business that waits to take precautionary action can’t be said to deserve consumers’ “complete confidence.” Again, I can’t say for sure that ConAgra and the others know they’re using PFCs in their popcorn bags and/or that those PFCs are bad. But I’m hard pressed to believe that they don’t. So I bristle a bit at well-manicured PR statements that paint metaphorical smiley faces on corporate behavior and try to make out the firms that issue them to be model corporate citizens. All because they swatted a few ants.

That’s not corporate responsibility. That’s corporate misdirection, and I would hope 2008 would be the year that kind of cheap conjuring finally comes to an end and companies get serious about placing the commonwealth over private wealth. We’ll see. In the meantime, here’s Gramps Hollender’s recipe for safe microwave popcorn:

Pour a quarter cup of high quality popping corn into a regular unbleached brown paper lunch bag. Add a tablespoon or two of cooking oil and any desired seasoning. Fold over the opening a few times, and staple the bag with a single staple. (Don’t worry-that’s not enough metal to cause sparking!) Give the bag a quick shake or two to mix everything, and then heat the bag for two to three minutes in the microwave (or simply use the popcorn setting). Voila! Hot popcorn without any potential need for eventual medical intervention. Enjoy!