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FDA Bans Use of Sulfites on Some Foods

Times Staff Writer

A ban on the use of sulfite preservatives on raw fruits and vegetables was issued Wednesday by the Food and Drug Administration, but a nonprofit group that had sought wider action said the move “falls far short” of what is needed to ensure public safety.

The colorless, odorless preservatives are often used on produce in restaurant salad bars and supermarket displays to keep foods such as lettuce looking fresh.

The FDA had proposed the ban last August after conducting a study prompted by reports of 13 deaths and at least 500 allergic reactions attributed to the preservatives. More than 1 million people sensitive to sulfites, mostly asthmatics, suffer reactions ranging from hives, nausea and diarrhea to shortness of breath and shock, the agency said. The FDA already requires warning labels for processed foods with sulfites.

‘Part of the Problem’

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However, the FDA action “addresses only a part of the problem,” said Mitch Zeller, staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which wants sulfites banned from all foods.

Fresh fruits and vegetables caused only half of the confirmed sulfite-related deaths and only 40% of the confirmed adverse reactions, Zeller said. Other deaths resulted from potatoes, alcoholic beverages and seafood treated with sulfites, he said.

But FDA Commissioner Frank Young called the ban, which becomes effective Aug. 8, “a high-water mark in consumer protection” and said that restrictions on the use of sulfite preservatives on pre-cut potatoes probably will be completed in about a month.

Sulfites can be produced through natural chemical reaction and have been used for thousands of years to preserve such foods as wine and dried fruits, Young said. However, he added, only since 1983 has the danger of the preservatives been studied. “With the growth of two workers in the family,” he said, more people are eating in restaurants and coming in contact with sulfites in salad bars.

Seizure of Products

Young said that regulatory action--ranging from seizure of products violating the ban to injunctions against their sale--will be taken against anyone still using sulfites on raw fruits and vegetables.

However, the National Restaurant Assn., which also had asked the FDA for such a ban, expects little need for such action because it had urged its members to stop using sulfites “quite some time ago,” spokesman Dorothy Dee said.

Types of sulfites include sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite and sodium and potassium metabisulfite. Citric acid, a natural preservative, could be used as an alternative.

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