Diacetyl, which is produced naturally during fermentation and is found in foods like butter and cheese, can also be chemically synthesized and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use as a flavoring.In the late 1990s, workers at the Gilster-Mary Lee plant in the small town of Jasper, Mo., began getting sick. Most of them initially assumed it was simply due to asthma or, perhaps, the flu. But when the symptoms never went away, they decided to speak to an attorney.In 2000, a lawyer representing eight of the workers contacted Dr. Allen Parmet, a public health physician in Kansas City. According to Parmet, within 20 minutes of reviewing their medical records, he diagnosed their condition as bronchiolitis obliterans, a devastating lung disease he had seen only three times in 25 years, reported the Associated Press.
Thirty factory workers eventually went forward with litigation against the plant, in a move that prompted people to start calling the condition “popcorn workers lung.” Eric Peoples, the first plaintiff to file a suit, was awarded $20 million in compensatory damages.Since then, several manufacturers including ConAgra, which owns Act II and Orville Redenbacher, have replaced diacetyl. Gilster-Mary Lee, however, has continued to use the chemical. After the Watson verdict, the company issued a statement saying: "We are certainly very disappointed by the decision of the jury in this case in light of the very clear evidence which was presented, including the millions of consumers who have safely used and enjoyed microwave popcorn since it was introduced. We are currently evaluating our next steps in this matter and will assert all rights available to us under the law."