Shelf Life Vs. Human Life

Sulfite compounds have changed the food business. Salad-bar fixings, dipped in colorless and odorless sulfite solutions, are almost immortal. Raw potatoes, sliced or shredded or peeled and ready for the cook stove, can be kept for weeks without refrigeration after sulfite treatment. Supermarkets get new shelf life from fruits and vegetables. Wine and beer last longer.

But treated food can be deadly for the sulfite-sensitive person. In one recent case a customer in a Los Angeles delicatessen died of respiratory failure in four minutes after eating hash-browned potatoes that had been treated with sulfite. Others have survived reactions but suffered brain damage. The numbers are small. The Food and Drug Administration has studied 15 deaths over the last three years, and regards the evidence of sulfite poisoning as conclusive in only eight.

That is proof enough to justify action. The Food and Drug Administration, supported by the National Restaurant Assn., issued regulations last month barring sulfites from fresh fruit and vegetables, exempting potatoes temporarily while a further rule is drawn. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has drawn up a rule calling for labeling of all wines and beers that contain sulfites. And in California, where research on the risk has moved ahead of the rest of the nation, Assemblyman Burt M. Margolin (D-North Hollywood) has written far-reaching legislation that would bar sulfites from fresh produce--a bill that already has cleared the Assembly but has been weakened by amendment in the Senate.

Potato processors have mounted a massive campaign both in Washington, seeking delay in FDA rules, and in Sacramento, seeking to exempt potatoes from the legislative ban. They want more time, more research. Neither is justified. Three of the eight fatalities in which the FDA developed compelling evidence of sulfite contamination involved the ingestion of sulfite-treated potato products. Of the other five cases, two involved consumption of lettuce and guacamole treated with sulfites, and there was one death each from beer, wine and a salad bar treated with sulfites.


In Sacramento the Senate on Wednesday exempted potatoes from the rules. That is a mistake that can now be corrected in conference. Some senators have sought to justify the potato exemption on the ground that the FDA has postponed a potato rule. But in the same breath they acknowledge the economic pressure, because processors depending on sulfites buy a substantial portion of the California potato crop.

There is no doubt that a sulfite ban would create serious problems for those who have built their businesses on the long shelf life that sulfites can provide. There are other, although less effective, preservatives that can help ease the transition. The economic dislocation for potato processors is a small price to pay to protect the lives of those who are sensitive to sulfites.