Although the Food and Drug Administration last week banned the use of sulfites on raw fruits and vegetables, that's not the end of the sulfite issue. Salad bars may have been one of the biggest offenders when it came to sulfites, but there are a lot of other foods that contain the preservative -- and the FDA is required to determine their safety as well.
The ban announced Wednesday applies only to sulfites that have been used to preserve the crispness and color of raw fruits and vegetables sold loose or packaged in cellophane. It does not, however, include potatoes, nor does it pertain to canned or dried produce that has been treated with sulfites. It also does not apply to foods in any of the other food categories listed on the accompanying chart.
The regulation was based on a government study of more than 500 reports of allergic reactions, including 13 deaths, to sulfite-containing foods. Those who are sulfite-sensitive are primarily asthmatics.
Jim Greene of the FDA said the agency banned the use of sulfites on raw produce because most of the serious illnesses reported occurred at salad bars.
Among the 500-plus reports, 44 percent were due to raw fruits and vegetables, said Greene. Fifteen percent were blamed on wine and beer, 14 percent were blamed on packaged foods and the remaining 27 percent were less specific about the type of food that allegedly caused the reaction.
Mitchell Zeller, an attorney with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group, said that for sulfite-sensitive individuals, "there's no safe level" of sulfites in food and that "for the same reason they're the FDA banning sulfites on fresh fruits and vegetables, they should ban it on other foods."
Zeller said CSPI considers potatoes, alcoholic beverages (regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), seafood and dried fruit as the "most dangerous" of these other foods. Although additional processed, packaged foods contain lower amounts of sulfites, those foods should contain a warning label, he said.
The FDA said warning labels on packaged foods are not necessary because "sulfites are safe for most people, and the declaration of sulfiting agents in the list of ingredients will provide sufficient information for those people who need or want to avoid unexpected exposure."
At present, the addition of sulfites as a preservative for packaged foods must be declared on the label. The labeling section of the ban now requires that all packaged foods that contain more than 10 parts per million of sulfites -- regardless of why they are added -- must also be declared. For example, sulfites are used as a bleaching agent in making maraschino cherries and as a dough conditioner in products such as crackers, cookies and pizza dough.
Although labeling is required for foods that are repackaged, mixed or sold in bulk, compliance has been lax. Over the past year, for instance, the FDA has requested hundreds of recalls for dried fruit and trail mixes due to undisclosed sulfites added somewhere along the distribution chain.
The only produce that the ban does not address is potatoes -- whether canned, frozen, dehydrated or precut fresh. The decision of whether to ban sulfites on fresh potatoes has been a particular source of controversy among the industry, the agency and consumer groups. Greene said the FDA plans on making a decision on potatoes within the next several months.
Two of the deaths associated with sulfites were attributed to ingestion of hash brown potatoes, and the FDA-sponsored Committee on the Hypersensitivity to Food Constituents recommended that sulfites be banned in fresh potatoes as well.
The fresh peeled potato industry consists of about 200 firms that sell products such as hash browns to restaurants -- establishments in which the consumer receives the product without any label. The industry, which contends that there are no suitable substitutes for sulfites on fresh potatoes, fears it would be destroyed by a sulfite ban.
Richard Silverman, an attorney who represents the National Coalition of Fresh Potato Processors, said between 120 and 180 potato farmers would go out of business as a result of a ban, and that the economic loss from firms would total about $1.2 billion.
At a recent Institute of Food Technologists press conference, Steven Taylor, a sulfite researcher from the University of Wisconsin, accused the fresh potato industry of being "irresponsible" in its use of sulfites.
Silverman said that to "say that the industry has been 'irresponsible' leads people to the wrong conclusion." He said rather that the usage has been "uncontrolled," because the industry consists of "little guys who don't have the sophistication or knowledge." Silverman said the deaths attributed to hash browns were with "extraordinarily high levels of sulfites," and that the industry has been informed to lower the amount of sulfites in its potatoes and note their presence on the label.
Dorothy Dee, speaking for the National Restaurant Association, said the group would support an FDA ban of sulfites on fresh potatoes if the agency concludes it is a health threat. The restaurant industry will "have to deal" with the repercussions should it be banned, Dee said.