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Government Bans Sulfite Preservatives In Restaurant Salad Bars

July 9, 1986 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Food and Drug Administration is issuing regulations today banning the use of sulfite preservatives - suspected in at least 13 deaths nationwide - on fresh fruits and vegetables in restaurant salad bars.

The regulations, which take effect in 30 days, remove six types of sulfite preservatives from FDA’s list of food additives generally recognized as safe.

Adoption of the rules follows nearly two years of debate in Congress and within FDA and the scientific community on the possible dangers from sulfite preservatives, particularly those used on restaurant salad bars.

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Sulfites have long been used to make fresh fruits and vegetables look more attractive. Sulfites keep lettuce from wilting, for example, and prevent apple slices from turning brown.

They are harmless for most people - but not to an estimated 500,000 sensitive people, mostly asthmatics, who can suffer an allergic reaction to the substances.

Most reactions are mild, resulting only in nausea, hives, diarrhea or shortness of breath. But severe reactions can send a person into shock and constrict the air passages, causing suffocation.

The National Restaurant Association and the Produce Marketing Association, in endorsing the proposal for a ban last year, said most restaurants have stopped using the preservatives because of the hazard.

″Salad bars have been associated with most of the serious problems, and the idea of posting signs in restaurants when sulfites have been added has not been universally accepted,″ FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young said in a statement Tuesday. ″Thus, we believe we must ban the sulfites in this use.″

The agency said the regulation was based in part on studies conducted by an independent scientific panel on sulfite hazards which recommended a ban, as well as on its own studies of 500 reports of reactions filed since 1983, including 13 deaths.

But FDA also was under heavy pressure from Congress. A hearing on the issue last year featured emotional testimony by the parents of a 10-year-old Oregon girl who died after eating sulfited guacamole in a restaurant and who accused the FDA of inaction.

The FDA regulation, published in today’s Federal Register, affects six sulfite preservatives: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium and potassium bisulfite and sodium and potassium metabisulfite.

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In addition, the FDA ordered a new disclosure requirement for some packaged food, to take effect in six months.

Disclosure labels already are required when sulfites are added as preservatives in many packaged foods, such as dried fruit, lemon juice, maraschino cherries and some canned soups.

The new requirement orders labels for smaller amounts of sulfites sometime used in baking and other processes if any sulfites are detectable in the final product.

The agency said other non-packaged foods used in restaurants, such as potatoes and seafood, will be covered by later regulations.

Mitch Zeller of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has actively pursued the sulfite issue, called the ban ″a step in the right direction,″ but said FDA should go further in moving against the preservatives.

Zeller also said FDA has missed a June 1 congressional deadline for regulating all uses of sulfite preservatives.