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At noon on a recent Friday, Jean-Claude Garrat, owner of BeDuCi, a Mediterranean restaurant in Dupont Circle, had too many chefs on his hands. In addition to the staff in his kitchen, there were roughly 30

toque-topped “chefs” on the street in front of his restaurant. And the group outside wasn’t very happy. They were hot (the temperature soared well into the 90s), bothered, and fairly

well-organized.

The street mob, whose members made entry into BeDuCi a hassle, couldn’t be good for business, and despite their uniforms, the “chefs” were not trained kitchen maestros but protesters. Most of the mock-chefs carried homemade signs depicting sad-looking farm animals and fish, and, while marching in a tight circle, they chanted a series of slogans, from an unimaginative call and response (“What do we want?” “No dioxins!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”) to a more singsongy couplet (“Free BeDuCi! Drop the lawsuit!”).

The protest had been organized by the Falls Church-based Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), and the group was targeting BeDuCi because its name appears as one of the plaintiffs in a class-action suit filed against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The National Toxicology Program (NTP), which falls under HHS’s umbrella, is set to “upgrade” the status of dioxin, a chemical compound found in the fat of mammals and fish, to a “known human carcinogen”—which, in English, essentially means that studies show that dinner could cause cancer.

The plaintiffs in the suit are trying to block the release of the study, arguing that, among other things, the designation is too strong and could cause undue panic—and thus hurt business.

The protesters believe, on the other hand, that the public has the right to know if the food supply is unsafe.

As Charlotte Brody, an organizing director at CHEJ, puts it, “This is a big deal.”

Garrat would agree, although, that Friday, he was primarily concerned with being able to serve lunch in peace. The bald, sharply dressed restaurateur claimed that he hadn’t even known that his name was attached to the lawsuit, and 20 minutes into the protest, he was signing a document in support of the protesters’ cause, thereby ending the disturbance and, at least for the moment, BeDuCi’s role in the legal battle.

But the battle over dioxin-contaminated food hardly began or ended at the door of Garrat’s restaurant. On June 12, the Monday following the BeDuCi protest, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially released a report that reached conclusions similar to the NTP’s. The EPA’s findings had been leaked to the Washington Post last spring, when the paper reported on its front page that “[f]or a small segment of the population who eat large amounts of fatty foods, such as meats and dairy products that are relatively high in dioxins, the odds of developing cancer could be as high as 1 in 100.”

Avoiding such supposedly deadly foods is difficult without switching to a strictly vegan diet. Plants themselves contain only trace amounts of the chemical, but it can accumulate in animals’ fat over a lifetime. Dioxin is largely a byproduct of paper production and waste incineration, and it enters the food chain when animals eat contaminated plants. Testing food for the chemical is prohibitively expensive. And, according to Stephen Lester, science director at CHEJ, talking about risk in quantitative terms involves some tricky math. “The whole thing with cancer is that it’s a probability,” he explains, “and it’s usually done on a population basis.” Determining how many steaks it would take to give one person cancer, he adds, is akin to guessing how many cigarettes a person needs to smoke before he gets sick. The risks vary from person to person.

Such uncertainties are part of the reason why people like the plaintiffs in the NTP lawsuit are up in arms. Jim Tozzi, a local businessman (he’s an investor in BeDuCi) who sits on the board of the Center for Regulatory Effectiveness, is responsible for organizing the plaintiffs in the case, a group that includes the Empire State Restaurant and Tavern Association and a California company that deals in a kind of nonrecyclable plastic that, through its production and disposal, causes dioxin to be released into the environment. Tozzi argues against NTP’s “known human carcinogen” classification on technical grounds, saying that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to support such a claim. Parties involved in the case are waiting for a judge to rule on the matter.

What all of this political maneuvering and scientific mumbo jumbo could mean to restaurants is fairly obvious to Scott Wexler, the Empire State Restaurant Association’s executive director. “This is the kind of thing that could be quite disastrous for the industry,” he explains, citing the thin profit margins and high failure rates that are the norm in the restaurant biz. Like others on both sides of the dioxin issue, Wexler invokes Belgium to illustrate his greatest fear: Last summer, after it was found that Belgian chickens and eggs contained dangerous levels of the chemical, Belgian food products were banned across Europe and Asia. The Belgian prime minister was voted out of office in the wake of the controversy, and at the time, the press cheekily took to referring to the country’s poultry as “chicken a la dioxin.”

Wexler has already seen signs that a similar panic could erupt in the States. He points to a full-page ad taken out in the June 5 New York Times: The ad features a picture of a typical restaurant meal, with arrows pointing to everything containing dioxin. “The gist of the ad is to regulate the emission of dioxin,” Wexler asserts. “But if you’re reading that, it’s like, ‘My God. My meat is poison. My seafood is poison. My poultry is poison.’ It’s exactly the kind of scare tactic that we feared might happen.”

The ad is doubly disturbing when you consider that, if the government’s findings are to be believed, the picture’s implications are essentially accurate. And there’s little that either food purveyors or consumers can do to alleviate the problem. “We really want to be clear,” explains Monica Rohde, CHEJ’s dioxin-campaign coordinator. “We don’t want to be telling people that they have to be vegan, or even vegetarian. It’s not realistic. Everybody has a right to a safe food supply.” Rohde says that the best thing that consumers can do in response to the dioxin dilemma is to quit buying nonfood items that contribute to the chemical’s production, mainly chlorine-bleached paper products and nonrecyclable plastics.

Lester admits that he can sympathize with farmers and restaurateurs who could be hurt financially because of a problem they didn’t create. But, he adds, someone’s going to have to take some lumps: “[The plaintiffs in the NTP suit] are claiming that if [the report is] released, then there will be banner headlines and people will panic and there’ll be a food scare and businesses will be hurt. But part of the question there is: Well, isn’t that what should happen?”

Hot Plate:

When there aren’t angry environmentalists clogging its entrance, BeDuCi is a pleasant restaurant fronted by a serene, glass-enclosed patio. And its $13.95 prix fixe lunch special is one of the better noontime deals in town. The centerpiece of my post-protest meal involves a modest filet of sauteed catfish smothered in a grainy mustard sauce; the vegetable side, which includes steamed peas and bok choy, is farmer’s-market pristine. And although I’ve never really considered coffee a “course” (in this prix fixe deal, dessert costs extra), the house brew is bracingly strong.

BeDuCi, 2100 P St. NW, (202) 223-3824. —Brett Anderson

Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to banderson@washcp.com. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.