Producers of alcoholic beverages containing sulfites, preservatives which maintain color and flavor, must disclose the chemicals’ presence on labels by June, 1987, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms announced in Washington Monday.
The action represents the second government-imposed restriction recently placed on the additives, which have been known to trigger severe reactions, including fatal shock, among asthmatics. As many as 500,000 people nationally are estimated to be sensitive to the agents and 13 deaths have been linked to sulfite ingestion since 1982.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets or restaurants, a move which mirrored similar action taken by California health officials. Among other uses, the FDA order eliminated spraying sulfites on produce to prevent browning when displayed at salad bars.
Must Carry Phrase
Monday’s announcement, which will appear in today’s Federal Register, will require domestic and imported beers, wines and spirits with more than 10 parts per million of the preservatives to carry a phrase stating, “Contains sulfites.” The information can be placed anywhere on the neck, front, back or side panels of beverage containers.
Wine makers will be most affected by the ruling because there is apparently negligible sulfite usage in the domestic beer and distilled spirit industries, according to a bureau official, who declined to be identified.
Wines contain among the highest amounts of sulfites found in processed foods along with dried fruit, lemon juice, molasses and sauerkraut juice, according to a recent report published by the Institute of Food Technologists.
Yet another federal study of more than 3,000 different domestic and imported wines found that the average sulfite level was more than 100 ppm, with the red wine totals considerably higher. The maximum amount of sulfites permitted in wines by the government is 350 ppm.
The new regulation does not differentiate between the amount of naturally occurring sulfites formed during fermentation and those added by manufacturers. As a result, virtually all wines marketed in this country will have to carry the disclosure, according to one industry observer.
Would Lose Flavor
The most common sulfite used by the state’s 600 wineries is potassium metabisulfite. Without the chemical, some wines would lose their “fresh, fruity flavor and the color would suffer,” one federal official said.
A consumer advocacy group active in pressing the federal government for sweeping restrictions on the preservative was dissatisfied with the bureau’s announcement.
“If the government is going to allow manufacturers to place the notice anywhere on the bottle then we are concerned,” said Mitchell Zeller, an attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. “Allowing wine makers to place the sulfite sentence in small print on the back label is an inadequate method of protecting the public.”
Industry reaction was varied.
“We are not happy about (the regulation) nor about adding more print to an already overcrowded label,” said Bob Dwyer, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners Assn. “It is unfortunate that to protect a very few we end up confusing a great many and that is indeed what this sort of thing does for us.”
“Anything (such as the sulfite declaration) on the label scares consumers and it would be much better not to have it,” said Lucio Caputo, president of the Italian Wine and Food Institute in New York. “People that don’t know what a sulfite is will be unnecessarily concerned . . . But we do not oppose the regulation.”
However, a representative of the San Franciso-based Wine Institute said that the sulfite issue is not a problem for wine makers.
“The point here is that the disclosure is informational and not a warning label,” said John De Luca, Wine Institute president. “It is in keeping with our previous acts of social responsibility. And to the small portion of those asthmatics for whom it is of value then we support it. This is not a general health issue.”
“Those people sensitive to sulfites will notice and that’s great. But the typical consumer could care less,” said Paul Gillette, publisher of a Los Angeles-based wine newsletter. “And those people sensitive (to the chemicals) would be wise to stay away from wine entirely.”