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FDA Issues Recalls to Fight the Use of Sulfites in Packaged Products

January 23, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The Food and Drug Administration has issued an unprecedented number of recalls in the past nine months for packaged foods that contain undeclared amounts of sulfites.

Since June, 1985, the agency has ordered 15 different national or regional food items removed from store shelves for failing to list the presence of the potentially dangerous preservative on the label.

An estimated 1 million Americans are allergic to sulfites, which are used to maintain a food's color and/or clarity. In some cases, the reactions can be severe and include hives, nausea, shortness of breath and "life-threatening shock." In fact, 13 deaths have been linked to the chemicals.

Most of the products involved in the current mislabeling are dried fruits, snack mixes and hominy.

An FDA spokesman said the increased number of recalls was not necessarily the result of any new priorities at the agency. However, the action closely parallels the FDA's decision to ban the use of sulfites on produce in restaurant and supermarket salad bars. Several consumer groups had lobbied the government to completely eliminate the use of the chemical additive in foods, but were rebuffed.

Asked to explain the recent spate of recalls, an FDA official attributed the regulatory activity to supermarkets increasingly packaging foods under their own private label.

"Sometimes a (food company) will send a product in bulk to retail stores and then the retailers will package the item and fail to list sulfites on the label," said the FDA's Emil Corwin. "There have been a number of cases such as this where sulfites weren't declared . . . (which) constitutes misbranding."

Allergies and Drugs--The federal government's action on the sulfite issue extends beyond food. The FDA is in the final stages of formulating a regulation that would require that all prescription drugs containing sulfites indicate the chemical's presence on the container's label.

The sulfite warning is deemed necessary by the agency because of the large number of pills and capsules that contain the preservative.

Collection of Criticisms--A food retailers' trade journal recently polled newspaper food editors throughout the nation to discern how the journalists viewed the supermarket industry. One particularly interesting part of the survey by Progressive Grocers magazine listed the 40 supermarket practices that "turned-off" the writers surveyed.

Many of the answers are typical of those which would be given by anyone who has spent time standing interminably in checkout lines, searching for long-since sold-out weekly specials or discovering fresh tomatoes underneath several cans of soup in grocery bags. A few of the responses, though, are quite novel and worth repeating.

Some of the food editors' complaints about markets include: (Disapproval of) junk food around the registers; checkers who don't recognize produce items; lack of restrooms; allowing (store employees) to smoke in public view during breaks, and constant rearrangement of the store.

Beefing-Up Meat--Certainly one of the more persistent consumer complaints expressed by shoppers about the larger supermarket chains pertains to the debatable quality of meat, particularly beef, offered for sale.

The problem, if one exists, can be traced to the bulk beef purchases made by the multimarket firms. Most of this meat forgoes the U.S. Department of Agriculture's voluntary grading system.

This system determines a meat's quality, and indirectly its price, by gauging the marbling, or tiny flecks of fat, that may be present. The more marbling in a piece a meat, the more tender, and desirable, it is presumed to be. (The grading system is not related to the USDA's mandatory inspection service, which scrutinizes meat for sanitation.)

Much of this ungraded meat would, if reviewed, be categorized below USDA Prime or USDA Choice, the top two qualifications.

In what may become an important turning point in the highly competitive Southern California supermarket scene, Vons Grocery Co. announced recently that it will offer only USDA Choice beef at its 177 stores. Vons thus joins Hughes Markets as being the only two companies of the top six chains in Los Angeles and Orange counties to offer only USDA Choice meats.

In describing the switch to one of the highest grades, a company official acknowledged that "our customers were telling us that that's what they wanted."

The move to USDA Choice beef will be made without raising meat prices, the firm claims.

Certainly one of the more interesting questions facing local grocery chain executives will be whether to match the latest competitive gambit that theoretically pegs upgraded beef to increased sales.

Finding Fault--In its monthly review of processed foods, the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest awards a "Food Porn" designation to those items that the consumer group believes lack particularly good taste or nutritional judgment.

The latest recipient is Del Monte Co. for its new Yogurt Raisins.

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