The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it will seek to ban the use of sulfites to preserve fresh fruits and vegetables in restaurants and supermarkets, noting that the widely used chemicals have been linked with about 500 allergic reactions, including 13 deaths.
Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler said in a statement that although sulfites have long been used in processed foods, their use has expanded in recent years with the growing popularity of salad bars.
Sulfites help to keep the produce in these bars looking fresh, and they retard browning.
"Most Americans have been unaware of this practice," Heckler said.
The FDA said two scientific reviews done for the agency concluded that "sulfites pose no hazard to the general population but can cause reactions in up to a million people, some asthmatics and others who may be sulfite-sensitive."
These range from minor allergic reactions, including hives, nausea and diarrhea, to more serious shortness of breath or even shock leading to rapid death, without emergency medical treatment.
The FDA's action, expected to be proposed formally in the Federal Register early next week, comes after nearly three years of prodding from consumer groups, scientists and members of Congress.
Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said yesterday that the FDA's new proposal "addresses the major exposure. It is a substantial step forward that is good for the American consumer . . . . There is just no reason to taint foods with sulfites just to keep them pretty."
He said sulfites are "the only food additive directly linked to deaths in the last 20 years."
Wyden, who has cosponsored a more extensive legislative ban with Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), emphasized in an interview, however, that "there is still more to do."
He said that an outside scientific panel reporting to the FDA had also urged that sulfites not be used on cut or frozen potatoes served in restaurants, and that additional attention to other uses is needed.
He said the proposed rule, for example, might have prevented the death in February 1985 of a 10-year-old Oregon girl who had eaten guacamole and salad overloaded with sulfites.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer group that has spearheaded the push for regulatory action since late 1982, was more critical yesterday.
"It is a pathetic response to a hazardous substance that FDA has known for years can kill people," the center said.
"In the three years that the agency has been twiddling its thumbs deciding what to do, numerous people have died and many others have been sent to the hospital with life-threatening reactions."
Staff attorney Mitchell Zeller said his group's concern was based on understanding that the ban will deal with wholesale and retail raw vegetables, but that sulfites could still be used by growers. The FDA document has not been released.
The government move goes far beyond the FDA's earlier voluntary effort to get restaurants to post sulfite warning signs on their menus.
Support for a ban was widespread, including from business groups such as the National Restaurant Association, which testified at a House hearing in March in favor of a ban.
After that hearing, the FDA also proposed a more limited action to broaden existing sulfite labeling requirements on processed foods.
Most uses in processed foods, from dried fruit to packaged mushrooms, must already be shown on the label.
More than a year ago, the FDA also announced its intention to require that drugs containing sulfite preservatives be labeled. That action has not yet been taken but is expected soon, said FDA spokesman William Grigg.
The new proposal on fresh fruits and vegetables will have a 30-day public comment period, with a final rule expected by the end of the year.