Religious Sue for GM Food-labelling
WASHINGTON-What do three rabbis, a Roman Catholic priest, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, an Eastern Orthodox cleric and a Buddhist who converted from Judaism have in common? The answer: They all are part of a lawsuit in federal court here against the Food and Drug Administration.
The suit charges that the lack of labeling of genetically engineered foods makes it impossible for religious people to observe dietary laws and customs. The religious plaintiffs are demanding mandatory safety testing and labeling. The lawsuit, filed in May 1998, adds a new and unusual twist to the debate over biofoods.
Almost since such products started appearing on supermarket shelves a half-dozen years ago, critics worried that such experiments as splicing flounder genes into beets to make them resistant to cold could produce unpredictable results. In Europe, too, memories of mad-cow disease, along with old-fashioned protectionism, have stoked antipathy toward U.S. biofoods.
But the lawsuit filed by the religious officials charges, among other things, that genetically altered foods are sinful, unethical - and maybe not kosher. "The religious groups add a vital aspect," says Andrew Kimbrell, who heads the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that is litigating the action. "It brings in a lot of the ethical questions that allow the public to better understand this." The religious group was assembled by Steven Druker, a peripatetic lawyer, Transcendental Meditator, Torah student and founding faculty member of Maharishi International University in Iowa. To Mr. Druker, 52 years old, the issue is very clear. In the Bible, Leviticus 19:19 forbids mating one species of animal with another, as well as sowing a field with two types of seeds. Companies and scientists who disobey this law, he declares, have "cosmic chutzpah." The FDA doesn't see it that way. It treats the new gene combinations in biofoods just like the variations produced by more traditional breeding techniques; in neither case does the regulatory agency require mandatory screening or rules.
"Do we see [genetically engineered foods] as being so different as to be put in a special class, and be treated differently and regulated differently? I say no," says Eric Flamm, senior policy adviser in the FDA's office of policy planning and legislation.
But if Mr. Druker prevails, and strict labeling is required, the consequences for the biofood industry could be huge. "The large concern [about labeling] in the back of everybody's mind is a boycott of products," worries Alan Goldhammer, executive director for technical affairs at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group. "That could have a serious economic impact." Mr. Goldhammer says biofoods have nutritional qualities that benefit consumers and agronomic qualities that aid farmers. He adds that the religious plaintiffs aren't making a "cogent argument," because "a gene is a gene." He explains that when a cow gene is put in a tomato, "it's no longer a cow gene," because it has been chemically synthesized in a test tube.
Mr. Druker began to focus on forcing biofood companies to use labels in 1996. He had grown up in a not-very-observant Jewish household in Des Moines, Iowa. But about a decade ago, divorced and practicing law in Los Angeles, he joined a Torah study group. "I became more involved with Judaism and studying Judaism and believing that we do have a duty to uphold the integrity of God's creation," he says.
Several years later, Mr. Druker began research for a planned book on the integration of religion, science and ethics. The more he researched, the more concerned he became about genetic engineering. He decided that the only answer to his concerns would be a lawsuit forcing food makers to at least label the ingredients of biofoods.
Mr. Druker says that one morning in August 1996, while praying in his apartment in tiny Fairfield, Iowa, he received guidance. "I don't want to come across as Joan of Arc," he says, "but I felt on an inner level a very strong inner feeling to go ahead and leave the book off for a while and go ahead" with the legal action. And so he began crisscrossing the country, gathering his Noah's Ark of plaintiffs, many of whom share his mystical spirituality and distrust of authority.
In December 1996, on his first recruiting trip to the East Coast, he was put in touch with Jossi Serebryanski, a Brooklynite and Hasidic rabbi. Rabbi Serebryanski is part of Judaism's cabalistic tradition, which focuses on the mystical dimension of the Torah and other Jewish law. He told Mr. Druker that he believes there is a spiritual energy in food, an energy he feels when he eats kosher foods. Indeed, he says, he has channeled that energy to help heal people. He claims it has taken him three to five minutes to heal carpal tunnel syndrome.
Mixing different species in food results in "destroying the natural boundaries of nature," says Rabbi Serebryanski. "No one is big enough to know all the damage that causes, and no one is big enough to repair it," he says. He signed on as a plaintiff.
Mr. Druker signed up four others after he spoke at the July 1998 "Summerfest of the North American Vegetarian Society" near Pittsburgh.
One listener linked him up with Father Samuel Kedala, a priest at her church, the Holy Spirit Orthodox church in Wantage, N.J. In his written declaration in the lawsuit, Father Kedala sounds an apocalyptical warning against biogenetic engineering. It is the biofood industry's worst labeling nightmare: "Viewed from the Eastern Orthodox theological perspective, this process appears to be utilizing the infectious, destructive forces of nature in the creation of new life forms, which seems like a gross affront to the Creator's original design." Mr. Druker's speech also caught the attention of the Rev. DeWitt Williams, director of health ministries for the Seventh-day Adventist church in North America. About half the church's 10 million members world-wide are vegetarians, he says. "The reason I'm concerned about genetic foods is that many are made from soybeans," about one-third to one-half of which have been genetically engineered, he says.
Ron Epstein, a child of the radical 1960s, was concerned about other living things, including insects. "The basis for all Buddhist teachings is respect for life," says Mr. Epstein, who converted to Buddhism from Judaism. He worries that the damage from biofoods, which sometimes contain insect genes, could be permanent. "If General Motors puts out a car, and it's got a problem, you can recall it; genetic changes are out there forever." After three years of recruiting plaintiffs, Mr. Druker also even succeeded in finding common ground between observant Jews and Muslims.
Both religions eschew pork products.
Joseph Regenstein, a Cornell University professor who has written about biofoods, says the biofoods issue "is not a problem" for even strict kosher certification organizations. And Mr. Druker says he doesn't think there are any biofoods on the market that contain pigs' genes. But without mandatory labeling, he says, there's no way to know what is in biofood. Insects, says Mr. Druker, aren't kosher, citing the Torah's proscription against eating "swarming, crawling creatures." The lawsuit is also crawling along, as Mr. Druker collects more religious supporters. According to one court document, the list recently consisted of: 113 Christians, 37 Jews, 12 Buddhists and 122 people who checked a box saying "my faith is not easily categorized."
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