Santa Ana Woman’s Death Linked to Sulfite : FDA Officials Blame Food Preservative for 12 Fatalities Nationwide in Past 2 1/2 Years : dek

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Times Staff Writer

The death of a Santa Ana woman earlier this week at a Long Beach hospital was apparently the result of complications stemming from the ingestion of sulfite, a food preservative linked to at least 12 deaths nationwide.

Judith Grant, 44, died early this week at South Bay Hospital in Long Beach. An asthma sufferer, she lapsed into a coma during an attack two weeks ago after dining on pizza, a salad and a glass of wine at Hank’s Pizza in Torrance. Sulfite is commonly used to keep salads looking fresh and prevent the further fermentation of wine, authorities say.

Grant’s death is the most recent of at least 12 sulfite-linked fatalities in the United States within the past 2 1/2 years, according to Jim Greene, a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration in Washington.


‘Additive Is Still Legal

“We’ve known for about 2 1/2 years that some segments of the population may be sulfite-sensitive--as many as 500,000 people, most of them asthmatic,” he said, “but the additive is still legal for use in foods and drink.

Mitchell Zeller, staff attorney for the Center for Public Interest in Washington, said sulfite is “very toxic” and called it the “only food additive that has killed people in the last 10 years.”

Zeller said asthma sufferers are particularly sensitive to sulfite because ingestion of even a small amount can result in fatal anaphylactic shock. The victim’s breathing passages may become blocked, and coma and death can result, he said.

Greene said the FDA is now evaluating a 1984 study on sulfite conducted by an independent science lab and is considering restricting the use of the additive. He said a decision about the preservative’s use is expected from the FDA by the end of July.

Alerted States to Risks

“It makes no sense to take action before we have appropriately evaluated the situation,” he said. “We have, however, alerted states to the potential health risks of sulfite and asked them to regulate restaurants accordingly. But only a handful have followed through.”

Greene said the situation has gotten better in the past 2 1/2 years, citing a report from the National Restaurant Assn. of America that estimated that only 4% of the organization’s members are still using the preservative.


California is one of a handful of states that requires eating establishments to post warnings when sulfite is being used. Legislation passed Thursday in the Assembly would prohibit the use of sulfites in foods next year. The measure has not yet been considered by the Senate.

‘That’s a Poison’

“It should be illegal in all states,” said Don Grant, Judith’s husband. “It’s illegal for a restaurant to serve cyanide because that’s a poison. And I don’t see why it shouldn’t be illegal to serve sulfite, because that’s a poison.”

Grant said 2 1/2 years is long enough to evaluate the hazards of the additive.

“We don’t do a whole heck of a lot when one or two people die,” he said. “But what if all 500,000 (sulfite-sensitive people) died tomorrow? What would we do then?”

The owners of Hank’s Pizza could not be reached for comment.

Grant, however, said he and his wife saw no warnings posted at the establishment about sulfite used in the food.

He said he is consulting with a lawyer for possible legal action because of his wife’s death.