2013-08-16 11:11:24 - Sulphites and sulphate ingredients play an important role in the food industry, but as well as preventing spoilage; they have also been linked with food intolerance and allergies.
Many countries require that sulphites and sulphate ingredients must be declared on labels as a food allergen, or intolerance additive, providing certain conditions apply. Typically, declaration is required when these additives are added directly and/or present at levels of 10 mg/kg (ppm) or greater in a product. The United States (US) goes a step further. In the US the label declaration applies if the sulphite is added to an ingredient that is added to the finished product unless it has no technical effect on the finished food and is less than 10 mg/kg.
The wide variation between countries and regions as to what foods sulphites can be applied to products and at what levels, creates problems for people who suffer
a reaction to sulphites (1).
Reactions Caused by Sulphites
Sulphites are known to increase symptoms in 5% of asthmatics. In some people adverse reactions include hives, swelling and anaphylaxis symptoms (2). Other reactions more associated with intolerance to sulphites are nausea, abdominal cramping and diarrhea (3).
Use of Sulphites in Food Products
Sulphites prevent spoilage caused by microbial growth, prevent oxidation and prevent browning or color degradation of food and wines. Other uses of sulphites are on seafood products such as shrimp and prawns. Their use on pickled vegetables is fairly common but less known is that they are used in baked products as a dough conditioner and dried beverage mixes for color retention.
Sulphites were recognized by the Greeks and Romans as a means to preserve wine. Then around the 1880s sulphites were applied to meat products produced in South America and Australia that were being shipped to England. In the 20th century the use of sulphites on processed fruits and vegetables became commonplace (4).
Regulations and Labeling Requirements for Sulphites
In some areas/countries, such as European Union (5) and those that follow Codex Alimentarius (6) standards, the regulations and labeling requirements are fairly straightforward. In the US, the requirements for sulphites are controlled by four different government agencies creating a degree of confusion, albeit mainly for companies importing products into the country. Alcoholic beverage sulphite labeling and requirements is controlled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The US Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for the fumigation of foodstuffs when using Sulphur Dioxide. The United States Department of Agriculture is responsible for meat, poultry and processed egg products, catfish and partially for organic products while the US Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the remaining of the food and feed products. Canada last year required sulphites to be listed as an allergen because of issues in regard to sulphite sensitivity (7).
Declaring or Labeling Sulphites
Since all these countries require specific labeling and set acceptable levels of sulphites one would believe that this issue is being controlled but each week there is a related product recall. In June 2013 Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) reported: “Sulphite: too high content (904 mg/l) in Chablis wine, following a consumer complaint. Origin France, distributed also to United Kingdom” (8) and in Canada on 25 May 2013 – undeclared sulphites in a white grape juice, on 4 June 2013 snacks with undeclared sulphites and on 29 April 2013 – undeclared sulphites in golden seedless (9). In the US, on 3 May 2013 dried whole shrimp with undeclared sulphites was recalled (10).
As with all allergens and sensitizing food ingredients, packaged food must be correctly labeled, but it is even more important to know all of the substances in the ingredients. When undeclared or excessive some ingredients, including sulphites, can cause reactions in people that result in illnesses and even death. Until the industry conducts due diligence to verify that all known substances are either declared or at the proper levels, then these recalls will continue and sensitive individuals will suffer for the industry’s improper action.
(1) Sulphites – International (http://farrp.unl.edu/web/farrp/sulfitesinternatl)
(2) Sulphite Allergy (http://allergies.about.com/od/foodallergies/a/sulfites.htm)
(3) Sulphites: Separating Facts from Fiction (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fy731)
(4) Food Intolerance Network Factsheet: Sulphites (220-228) (http://fedup.com.au/factsheets/additive-and-natural-chemical-factsheets/220-228-sulphite-preservatives)
(5) Allergenic Foods in Annex IIIa (http://www.codexalimentarius.net/gsfaonline/groups/details.html?id=161) and List of Authorized Food Additives (http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/fAEF/additives/lists_authorised_fA_en.htm)
(6) Food Additive Group Details (http://www.codexalimentarius.net/gsfaonline/groups/details.html?id=161) and The Codex Recommendations (http://www.foodallergens.info/Legal/CODEX.html)
(7) Sulphites - One of the Ten Priority Allergens (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/pubs/securit/2012-allergen_sulphites-sulfites/index-eng.php) and Food Allergen Labeling (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/allergen/index-eng.php)
(8) Food Recalls in EU - Week 23 (ttp://foodlawlatest.com/2013/06/07/food-recalls-in-eu-week-23/)
(9) Canada Recalls and Safety Alerts (http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/recall-alert-rappel-avis/index-eng.php?cat=1)
(10) US FDA - Recalls, Market Withdrawals & Safety Alerts (http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/default.htm)
About SGS Food Safety Services
With 160 foods and additives that can cause an allergic reaction in humans it is difficult to produce an item that someone in the world is not allergic to.
SGS experts provide food allergen testing services (http://www.sgs.com/en/Consumer-Goods-Retail/Food/Primary-Production/Testing-and-Analytical-Services/Food-Allergen-Testing.aspx) and support the food industry to ensure that all ingredients are properly declared on packaging and prevent undeclared ingredients from contaminating products.
For more information, please contact an SGS expert.
SGS is the world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. SGS is recognized as the global benchmark for quality and integrity. With more than 75 000 employees, SGS operates a network of over 1 500 offices and laboratories around the world.