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Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide


UNITE HERE Demands On-Site Testing for Diacetyl Risk to Restaurant Workers

Posted to the IUF website 24-Mar-2008

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Responding to growing evidence of the potential in health risks to restaurant workers from exposure to the flavouring ingredient diacetyl, the IUF-affiliated UNITE HERE has requested government health and safety inspection of commercial kitchens in New York and Seattle, Washington. The union, which earlier this year called for the rapid elimination of diacetyl as a flavouring ingredient in cooking oils and sprays, demand investigation of kitchens run by the transnational caterer Aramark at two locations each in New York and Seattle. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which carried out the New York tests on cooking oils, sprays, and air samples in Aramark kitchens at the offices of JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, has also scheduled medical testing of the potentially affected employees.

Similar tests in Seattle, Washington will be carried out at the request of the union by the state Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention (SHARP) rather than NIOSH. SHARP was the first US government agency to issue diacetyl safety fact sheets for kitchen and restaurant workers, available on their website in English and Spanish.

The potential health risk is not limited to diacetyl-flavoured oils and sprays - synthetic diacetyl (made from the highly toxic industrial solvent MEK) is added as preservative to certain butters and margarines.

Interviewed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, SHARP's research director stated "We're facing a very serious illness from this flavoring agent which can destroy people's lives, and we feel there is sufficient evidence that diacetyl is an important part of what appears to be a massive assault on the lungs of workers exposed to it."

The union's call for action on diacetyl has been echoed by the professional chef's organization, the American Culinary Federation. In an official statement, the Federation declared that "Compelling evidence exists that exposure to and inhalation of diacetyl, especially in oils, butters, margarines and popcorn, does have a direct correlation to harmful health effects. It is imperative that the government investigate the dangers of diacetyl, as well as impose regulations, until conclusive evidence can be obtained as to the hazardous effects, extent of exposure and association with the fatal lung disease, bronchiolitis obliterans." The organization has also requested the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to withdraw from diacetyl its "generally recognized as safe" designation. The FDA claims it is powerless to act because the "safe" designation refers only to safe for eating, whereas the health risks to workers arise from inhaling vapours and are therefore a matter for other agencies. Public health and safety agencies in the EU have likewise justified their inactivity by declaring that diacetyl has been declared safe…for human consumption. A familiar formula for regulatory failure…