The Danish Popcorn Revolution of 2015
First they were there, then they were gone. Now they are back again.
In May 2015, the Danish supermarket COOP completely stopped selling microwave popcorn. The shelves where it used to be were suddenly empty. Then in October the same year, it reappeared on the shelves.
What had happened? Well, a case of successful chemical substitution had just happened.
From one day to another, microwave popcorn had disappeared. Customers looking to buy the product were instead met with empty shelves and nothing but a sign explaining why COOP had removed it.
“Microwave popcorn had proved to be a difficult challenge“
The reason for the removal was concerns about fluorinated substances in the packaging.
COOP Denmark had already started to phase out all fluorinated substances from its own brands and to replace other products that contained these chemicals. But microwave popcorn had proved to be a difficult challenge.
Seeing as there were no alternatives available they decided to remove the product completely.
“We have worked hard with our suppliers to find alternatives to fluorinated substances in the packaging of microwave popcorn, but so far, it has unfortunately been in vain. Therefore, we have decided to completely stop the sale of microwave popcorn until safer alternatives come out on the market”, said Malene Teller Blume, the Head of Chemistry at COOP, at the time.
Soon after, the Danish Consumer Council tested the packaging of nine different varieties of microwave popcorn. The results were clear.
“All of the bags were lined with perfluorinated substances (PFAS)”
All of the bags were lined with perfluorinated substances and most of them were contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
PFOA belongs to the group of substances called perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) which are used worldwide in everyday products such as frying pans, waterproof clothing and food packaging. Their unique surface properties make them extremely effective for water repellency, anti-greasing and other non-stick functions.
But PFAS are very harmful to human health and the environment. They are associated with cancer, liver damage, immune system effects and other severe harm to people who are exposed to them.
Because these substances are non-biodegradable, they are also persistent in the environment, causing them to accumulate in fish and other wildlife – including humans.
“It is not the single night of eating microwave popcorn that is the problem. However, it contributes to the amassed amount of fluorinated chemicals that we are exposed to and thereby increases the health risk”, said Stine Müller, Project Manager of the Danish Consumer Council THINK Chemicals, following the test results.
For the first two weeks the media attention was huge for COOP Denmark, with appearances in over 100 media outlets such as news articles, radio and TV. The company was overwhelmed by all the positive media attention.
“The media attention was huge for COOP Denmark, with appearances in over 100 media outlets”
In late August, Denmark’s Food and Environment Minister, Eva Kjer Hansen, even unveiled a new recommendation limit for the use of fluorocarbons in food packaging, stating that she would also push the issue in the European Union.
“We must solve the problem in co-operation with the EU, so it’s not just the Danish companies that must avoid using fluorocarbons in food packaging”, she said.
But there was still no microwave popcorn in the COOP supermarkets.
“Five months later, they had found a technical solution”
Ever since they had stopped selling the product, COOP had been very clear with their supplier, Spanish snack company Liven, that they would not be buying any more packaging from them until they could present a safer alternative.
Five months later, Liven had found a technical solution. They had developed a stronger paper bag made from cellulose that is impermeable to fat and did not need a fluorinated chemical coating. Liven had found a way to improve the fibres of the cellulose and make the paper stronger without adding any additional chemical.
In October, microwave popcorn was finally back on the shelves at COOP – now free from harmful fluorinated substances.
COOP was excited, the public was excited, and a short animated video went viral. For the first few seconds it simply stated:
“First they were there. Then they were gone. Now they are back again”.
Did you know this?
Interestingly enough, the decision to ban the sales of microwave popcorn received so much media attention that the loss of sales did not matter. The value of positive media attention was estimated at 1.5 million euro – more than the value of the lost sales.
In January 2018, COOP Denmark was asked to send 10 cases of the now-famous microwave popcorn to the State of Washington, USA, where they were to be presented before the Senate as part of a discussion abouta possible ban on PFAS in all food packaging.
And early this spring, the bill passed and the State of Washington banned PFAS from all food packaging.