It's the first thing many home cooks reach for when cooking, baking or grilling. But a series of new lawsuits filed against the company that makes the popular cooking spray Pam has many questioning whether this pantry staple is potentially hazardous.
The eight plaintiffs who filed lawsuits against Conagra Brands on Tuesday have alleged that exploding cans of cooking spray caused severe injuries, including third-degree burns, disfigurement and even blindness. In all of the cases, the cans, which included the brand Pam, reportedly exploded or "erupted" as the users were cooking.
However, Dan Hare, Conagra Brands' Senior Director of Communication and External Relations, issued the following statement to TODAY Food regarding the new lawsuits: "When Pam is used correctly, as instructed, it is a 100-percent safe and effective product. Pam Cooking Spray is used safely and properly by millions of people several times a day, every single day."
So, is there a problem? Before tossing out that cooking spray — or investing in a new kitchen fire extinguisher — here's what you need to know about cooking oils that come in cans.
What is PAM?
Pam, which is an acronym for "Product of Arthur Meyerhoff" (one of the inventors of Pam), became a household name in the 1960s when consumers were seeking out alternatives for butter or margarine to sauté foods. Conagra Brands, the Chicago-based parent company of major food labels like Duncan Hines, Birds Eye and Vlasic, bought Pam in 2000.
Today, while there are several different varieties, Pam's original formula contains canola oil, palm oil, coconut oil, lecithin from soybeans, dimethyl silicone, rosemary extract and propellant. In food terms, a propellant is a chemical agent that allows something to be easily propelled or sprayed, like a gas or alcohol.
Why cooking spray is flammable
According to the lawsuits, "The contents of the canister of Pam Cooking Spray at issue included not only cooking oil, but also propellants, including extremely flammable materials such as propane and butane."
When asked what specific propellant is used in Pam, Hare would not confirm whether propane or butane are, or have ever been, ingredients in the spray, but said, "The propellant is a food-grade and has been approved by the USDA and it is the industry standard used by other manufacturers."
Most cooking sprays, regardless of the brand, include propellants. It's what makes them so convenient to use and allows the oil to be sprayed consistently and evenly.
However, when these propellants get too close to a heat source, they can easily combust. The six plaintiffs, including two sets of couples who were cooking together, are claiming that they were burned while using cans of cooking spray sold under the brand names Pam, Wellsley Farms and Sysco, all of which are made by Conagra.
According to J. Craig Smith, the lawyer representing the accusers, the main issue isn't just about what's in the cooking spray, but also the cooking spray cans themselves. All of the alleged instances — which took place in different states over the past two years — involved larger cans of cooking spray.
The lawsuit states that in 2011, Conagra implemented a new design for cans containing more than 10 ounces of product. These are the cans typically sold at big-box retailers like BJ's Wholesale Club which, according to one of the plaintiffs, sold the vented cans under the Wellsley Farms brand. Standard cans of Pam are between 5 and 6 ounces.
That design included a "venting mechanism on the bottom of the can — visible as four U-shaped score marks — intended to allow the container to vent its flammable contents in a controlled manner," reads a press release from the law firm. "The plaintiffs in these six cases have alleged that the design of the cans is faulty, dangerous and prone to explosion."
Earlier this year, Conagra changed the design of its larger cans again to eliminate the U-vents. Hare told TODAY that the switch was not implemented because of a faulty design or any previous customer complaints. The company, according to Hare, simply wanted to have one standardized can design for all of its cooking sprays. But some of the cans with the U-vent design still remain on store shelves today and now the plaintiffs are asking for a recall.
“Perhaps more alarming is the fact that, to this day, Conagra apparently refuses to institute a nationwide recall to ensure that the defective cans sitting on store shelves right now are removed before someone else suffers permanent injury from an explosion," Smith said in a statement. "Each day that these cans remain on store shelves, Conagra’s negligence puts consumers in danger.”
Y’tesia Taylor, one of the plaintiffs, claims that she was baking in her home kitchen when a can of Pam (which was not directly next to the stove) burst open and allegedly started spraying its contents out of the vents at the bottom of the can. The can then burst into flames and, as a result, her kitchen caught fire.
During the incident, she sustained severe burns. The same thing allegedly happened to four other plaintiffs when they were cooking at their stoves. One of the plaintiffs, Reveriano Duran (who is a professional cook), was working in a restaurant kitchen when a can of cooking spray exploded.
Most of the plaintiffs suffered severe burns and required skin grafts. According to her lawyer, Taylor spent two weeks in a medically-induced coma. One of her contact lenses also reportedly burned onto her eyeball and she is now currently blind in that eye.
What consumers need to know
Conagra Brands says that its top priority is consumer safety. In the wake of the lawsuits, the company still fully stands behind all versions of its best-selling product.
When asked about the possibility of a product recall, Hare said that while he's unable to comment on the specifics of current pending litigation, he stressed that it's important for all consumers to note the high number of cans that have been successfully used by the vast majority of consumers for over 50 years. Within that timespan, the company has very rarely received complaints about its cooking sprays.
With regards to the products' safety, Hare added that every can of Pam comes with clear warning labels about its flammable nature, as well as instructions on proper use.
"All Pam Cooking Sprays include large, clear instructions, warnings and cautions on both the front and back of the packaging," said Hare. These labels are there to remind consumers to use the product responsibly, which includes not leaving the can on a stove or near a heat source.
When asked what qualifies as “near” a heat a source, Hare said that Conagra is currently unable to provide details since it can be difficult to measure. Heat within any space varies greatly depending on the source, room ventilation, room size and many other factors. The warning label also cautions against storing the can in places where temperatures can rise above 120 degrees.
If you are concerned that your can of Pam may be hazardous, Consumer Reports is advising people to reach out to Conagra directly.
"Consumers should be concerned about any product that spontaneously leaks or sprays out flammable liquids or materials," James Dickerson, Chief Scientific Officer for Consumer Reports, told TODAY by email. "The Pam cooking spray containers that possess a 'U-shaped release valve' appear to be one of those products."
Conagra has not issued a recall on any of the products named in the lawsuits, but Dickerson also advised home cooks to always pay attention to the exterior condition of any canned goods or sprays. "Consumers should not purchase or use cans of cooking spray (or any other canned products that are under pressure) if those containers are dented, damaged, or bulging," said Dickerson. Consumers in possession of any such items should discard them immediately.