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.
The National Restaurant Assn., which estimates that about 15% of its members use sulfites, also has recommended that members halt sulfite use.
Testifying to the frightening health effects of sulfites were the parents of a 10-year-old girl who died soon after eating guacamole and a former National Football League player who never had an asthma problem but almost suffocated after two glasses of wine.
Adverse Reactions Cited
The FDA, although it has received more than 500 reports of adverse reactions to sulfites, has not gone beyond its recommendation that restaurants voluntarily display warnings. The agency has also asked the Health and Human Services Department to require all products containing sulfites to be so labeled, and Young said that Robert B. Helms, acting assistant secretary for planning and evaluation, is the sole opponent of the FDA's labeling proposal.
Committee members criticized Helms, who was not present, for placing economics over public health. "This is a classic example (where) the people charged to do something in the public interest aren't the people who are making the decisions," Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) said.
Rep. Wyden and Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.) have introduced legislation to ban sulfites from restaurant use.