WASHINGTON — Members of a House subcommittee criticized the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday for "foot dragging" in regulating sulfites, preservatives added to most wines and to food items offered in restaurant salad bars. Sulfites have been connected with 12 deaths.
"The government watchdog is snoring," said Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee.
The panel urged FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young to move quickly to ban the use of sulfites in restaurants and to label all packaged goods and wines containing sulfites. An FDA advisory committee had recommended a limited ban on sulfites in January but the Health and Human Services Department, the parent agency of the FDA, has blocked any action beyond a request that restaurants voluntarily display warnings that they use sulfites.
Triggers Asthma Attacks
Sulfites adversely affect 5% to 10% of asthmatic persons--about 500,000 individuals--and, at high levels, can cause asthma attacks. Sulfites are also used to prevent unpackaged foods such as lettuce and potatoes from browning and to preserve and stabilize about 1,100 drug products, including some asthma medications.
A panel of physicians testified Wednesday in favor of limited sulfite bans, particularly in restaurants, where untrained and even illiterate workers may unwittingly poison food by adding excessive quantities of sulfites.