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FDA to ban sulfites from fresh produce.

This past Feb. 15, the McPike family of Salem, Ore., went out for a Mexican dinner. Ten-year-old Medaya ordered her "usual" -- a guacamole tostada. But at home half an hour after finishing the meal, Medaya, an asthmatic, complained to her parents that she thought the guacamole was making her sick. "While we were phoning our doctor and the emergency room at the hospital, Medaya's lips started turning blue," her father, James McPike, recalled to a congressional hearing on March 27. By the time Medaya reached the hospital, she had gone into cardiac arrest. The emergency room staff resuscitated her, but the girl developed severe brain damage and survived only five days. Her doctors ruled that sulfites, a food additive, were the cause of death.

Since the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in 1982 first petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to rescind its "generally recognized as safe" listing for sulfites (SN: 11/6/82, p. 294), at least six persons have died from reactions to sulfites in their food. Scores more have reported life-threatening allergic-type reactions. This week FDA announced it would move to ban use of the antioxidants on fresh fruits and vegetables.

In announcing the proposed ban, FDA noted that sulfites are harmless to most people. But for those who have a sulfite sensitivity, says Ronald A. Simon of the Scripps Clinic Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., levels as low as 5 to 50 parts per million in food might trigger a severe reaction. Asthmatics are the largest group at risk; FDA estimates that 10 percent of the nation's asthmatics--1 million people--may be sulfite sensitive.

As "freshening agents," sulfites prevent wilting and discoloration in fresh produce. Six chemicals can be used: sulfur dioxide, sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, potassium bisulfite, sodium metabisulfite and potassium metabisulfite.

Sulfites are also widely used in prescription drugs, alcoholic beverages and a variety of other foods, including fresh seafood for market. FDA has received reports of many adverse reactions attributed to sulfites in such products; one that involved canned potatoes resulted in death. Although the current FDA proposal has no bearing on these products, FDA says in announcing its new measure in this week's Federal Register that it "intends to address all other uses of sulfiting agents, including...potato products, in the near future." The agency says it singled out fresh produce for priority action because of the growing popularity of salad bars, and because roughly half the 500 reports of sulfite reactions it has received have been linked to fresh fruits and vegetables.

CSPI staff attorney Mitchell Zeller characterized the FDA proposal as "a step in the right direction." However, he adds, "I think it's pathetic that it took the agency this long to just get out a document that deals with one of the hundreds of uses of sulfiting agents."

Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), prompted in part by the Oregon girl's death, has authored a bill that would ban sulfites not only in produce but also in cut and frozen potatoes. The bill would additionally require FDA to study whether sulfites' "generally recognized as safe" status should be dropped for other uses. Noting that "FDA does not go as far as I wanted" in the current proposal, he told SCIENCE NEWS that as a result of a dicussion with the agency's commissioner Monday, "I'm hopeful that there will be action taken on other fronts."
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Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 17, 1985
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