Sulfite compounds have changed the food business. Salad-bar fixings, dipped in colorless and odorless sulfite solutions, are almost immortal. Raw potatoes, sliced or shredded or peeled and ready for the cook stove, can be kept for weeks without refrigeration after sulfite treatment. Supermarkets get new shelf life from fruits and vegetables. Wine and beer last longer.
But treated food can be deadly for the sulfite-sensitive person. In one recent case a customer in a Los Angeles delicatessen died of respiratory failure in four minutes after eating hash-browned potatoes that had been treated with sulfite. Others have survived reactions but suffered brain damage. The numbers are small. The Food and Drug Administration has studied 15 deaths over the last three years, and regards the evidence of sulfite poisoning as conclusive in only eight.
That is proof enough to justify action. The Food and Drug Administration, supported by the National Restaurant Assn., issued regulations last month barring sulfites from fresh fruit and vegetables, exempting potatoes temporarily while a further rule is drawn. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms has drawn up a rule calling for labeling of all wines and beers that contain sulfites. And in California, where research on the risk has moved ahead of the rest of the nation, Assemblyman Burt M. Margolin (D-North Hollywood) has written far-reaching legislation that would bar sulfites from fresh produce--a bill that already has cleared the Assembly but has been weakened by amendment in the Senate.