Risks Associated with Sulphites

Safe Food would like consumers and producers of food to be aware of the risks associated with use of sulphites on, or in, food. Sulphites are permitted as food additives in some foods under specific circumstances in the Food Standards Code.

For example, sulphites are permitted in the making of sausages, but are prohibited for use in meat products such as mince. Businesses must only use a premix in sausage making that’s been validated against the code to ensure it meets the permitted levels for sulphites.

What are sulphites?

Sulphites are a group of food preservatives (numbered E220-E228) including sulphur dioxide, sodium sulphite, sodium bisulphite, potassium bisulphite, sodium metabisulphite, and potassium metabisulphite. One of the main uses of sulphites is to prevent browning of processed fruits, vegetables, and shellfish. Raw peeled potatoes, dried fruit, sausages and wine are foods that commonly contain sulphites.

Why be concerned about sulphites?

Safe Food is concerned about the use of sulphites in food for three reasons:

  • Misuse that can mask unhygienic practices in food processing; 
  • Permitted levels can easily be exceeded. Breaches of sulphite use are encountered frequently in compliance checks conducted by food regulators; 
  • Some individuals may show intolerance and have adverse reactions to exposure to these preservatives from consuming foods that contain them (see below). In concentrated forms, sulphites are irritants that require careful handling and storage.

Sulphites – unlawful use

Checking for the presence of sulphites in meat products such as mince, as well as levels of sulphite in allowed products such as sausages, is routinely conducted. Detections of use outside these specified circumstances, or use of excessive amounts, is likely to result in penalties under the Food Production (Safety) Act 2000.

Food Intolerances

Some individuals may be intolerant of certain food additives or preservatives. Food intolerances are often confused with allergic reactions, but the adverse effects of food intolerances do not involve the same immunological mechanisms as an allergic reaction. Food intolerances generally do not result in life-threatening reactions like food allergies; however, they are still of concern because of their potential public health significance.

People who have an intolerance to sulphites can experience symptoms including chest tightness, hives, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and breathing problems. The underlying mechanisms for sulphite intolerance are not completely understood. For some individuals, though, the sensitivity to sulphites may be an allergic type of response. People with asthma appear to be at an increased risk of having asthma symptoms following exposure to sulphites.