Utah gluten-free baker sues Hatch over FDA funding
Courts • Bakery CEO calls labeling laws and enforcement a matter of life and death.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Utah man who is dying from an auto-immune disease is suing Sen. Orrin Hatch, alleging the senator has stymied funding to establish regulations on gluten-free food that would help those afflicted with the ailment.

"We have a life-threatening auto-immune illness that affects 9 million-plus people, but legislators could care less," said Tim Lawson, the plaintiff in the federal lawsuit filed Thursday afternoon.

"People are dying every day. I want our government to realize they work for us and this is a sincere and massive concern of life-threatening magnitude," Lawson said.

Lawson said he is dying from complications of celiac disease, which causes the body's immune system to attack the lining of the intestine when it comes in contact with gluten — which is contained in grains. The damage to the intestines make it difficult for patients to absorb nutrients, causing various problems stemming from malnutrition.

Lawson, a long-time associate of Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, is the CEO and founder of New Grains Gluten Free Bakery, which makes gluten-free products for people who suffer from the disease.

But Lawson's lawsuit said the FDA has failed to enact gluten-free labeling regulations, in part because Hatch has refused to use his influence to get funding for the agency.

As a result, Lawson said people who are buying gluten-free products are uncertain if the product is indeed free of gluten, or if it contains amounts that could cause an immune system reaction.

Hatch spokesman Matthew Harakal said the lawsuit has been referred to the Senate's legal counsel, who represents senators in litigation related to their official roles.

"While everyone is entitled to their opinion, there is no legitimate cause of action against a legislator for failing to appropriate taxpayer dollars to address any one constituent's specific, individual desires," Harakal said.

He said the senator receives hundreds of comments from Utahns daily with differing opinions. "Our office does our very best to address each and every concern, and in this case did discuss this constituent's concerns with him," Harakal said.

Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who teaches law at the University of Utah, said the lawsuit is "close to a frivolous lawsuit."

"Anybody could allege that, as a result of a member of Congress not voting one particular way they've then suffered some kind of adverse effect and the courts don't allow that kind of interference with the political process," he said. "These kinds of issues need to be resolved in the political process."

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke