www.huffingtonpost.com - July 11th, 2012
It was in 1970, the year after Richard Nixon became president, that I came to Washington to be a new Nader's Raider. On my first day at work, Ralph Nader asked me to research and write a book about food additives. I had no idea what food additives were, let alone how to write a book, but I dove in.
It didn't take me long to see why some people considered the three letters F-D-A to stand not only for Food and Drug Administration, but also for Foot Dragging Artists. For the next four decades I've seen countless examples of failure to act, which have resulted in countless illnesses and deaths.
One glaring example of FDA's plodding pace concerned sulfites, which had long been used as preservatives in wine, raisins, and other foods and were thought to be safe. In 1982 the FDA proposed that sulfites formally be declared "generally recognized as safe," or GRAS, a legal category of substances added to food, even though several years before California researchers found that sulfites could trigger asthma attacks. The problem arose because restaurants had begun soaking iceberg lettuce and peeled, raw potatoes in a sulfite solution. The sulfites prevented browning but resulted in high levels in the foods.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) publicized the sulfite problem and then, even in those pre-Internet days, heard from many people who suffered asthma attacks after eating a restaurant salad or drinking a glass of wine. Then we heard from more than a dozen people whose family members died after eating sulfite-laced foods. That made me realize that sulfites had probably caused hundreds or thousands of deaths.
With people dying, CSPI petitioned FDA to ban sulfites, but the agency did nothing. 60 Minutes ran, and then re-ran, a story, but still the FDA did nothing. It took a 1985 congressional hearing led by Rep. John Dingell to move the FDA. The parents of a young girl told the committee how she died minutes after eating a salad with sulfite-treated ingredients. FDA commissioner Frank Young then acknowledged that the agency published its GRAS proposal without updating its literature review. But it took five years, and who knows how many unnecessary deaths, before the FDA finally banned sulfites from fresh vegetables and limited the amounts permitted in other foods.