The Food and Drug Administration yesterday published a proposal to require that all processed foods be labeled if they contain measurable amounts of sulfites. Publication came a week after a House subcommittee took the agency to task for failing to take action to regulate sulfites.

The new proposal, which had been awaiting Office of Management and Budget approval since early March, would strengthen labeling requirements for sulfites. But both the agency and the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations said it was only a modest first step in dealing with sulfites, which have been linked to 12 deaths and hundreds of reported illnesses. An estimated 450,00 to 750,000 Americans, mostly asthmatics, may be sensitive to them.

"This will be a help to people avoiding sulfites, but it isn't the solution to the problem of high doses of sulfites that appear to occur in restaurant salad bars. That's where we've gotten the deaths in recent years," said FDA spokesman William Grigg. He said that FDA was "actively exploring options in terms of drugs and salad bars."

A spokesman for Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who held last week's hearing, called the labeling proposal "worthwhile . . . . Now, as before, the greater problem remains the risk of sulfites in restaurants. It's there that the agency needs to direct its efforts."