On a Friday afternoon in August, as the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on President Clinton's budget package, an elderly man sat in an obscure hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building conducting an experiment. The man watched intently as a sniffling Senate staffer crammed a dozen speckled gray tablets into her mouth and attempted to swallow them all at once.
“How do you feel?” he demanded after the staffer gagged down the mossy-smelling tablets, each large enough to choke a dog. “Symptoms gone?”
The staffer, as soon as she was capable of speaking, replied that she did feel better—her throat was still scratchy, but her nasal congestion, watery eyes, and sneezing were all gone.
Triumphant, the elderly man pounded his fist on the enormous table before him. “See?” he hooted. “A miracle! And in a few weeks, you'll be better lookin', too.”
Meet Royden Brown, a 76-year-old, retired Arizona rancher who manufactures a vile-tasting allergy cure called Aller-Bee-Gone. The cure's miracle ingredient is bee pollen, and since 1979, when Brown founded a company called C.C. Pollen, he has been trying to convince the world in general—and the federal government in particular—that this natural substance can cure all forms of illness and disease. And that Friday, Aug. 6, was Brown's lucky day—for two reasons.
First, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) reserved the Senate hearing room so that Brown could hold court there and administer his Aller-Bee-Gone tablets to all comers. Brown promoted the event by faxing an elaborate press release to every congressional office, proclaiming that he would be on hand to “cure all of the U.S. Representatives and the U.S. Senators and their families and staff of their allergies, asthma, hay fever, sinusitus, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.”
Second, Brown achieved a small victory in his crusade to win more respect—and regulatory freedom—for his unconventional cure. A very small victory, admittedly, but better than none at all: That day, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) confirmed that bee pollen is one of more than 500 holistic and homeopathic remedies under consideration by the agency for scientific testing. By Sept. 20, NIH researchers will have selected the 20 most “promising” remedies from this initial pool; NIH's newly created Office of Alternative Medicine will then attempt to determine their healing potential. The aim of the study, says NIH spokesman Marc Stern, is to “find ways that alternative medicine and Western medicine can work together to produce complementary medicine.”
All things being equal, bee pollen's odds of being chosen are about one in 25. But Brown fancies that he enjoys an edge on the competition: Unlike, say, acupuncture or therapeutic massage, Brown's potion has won the backing of one of the leading congressional forces behind the creation of the Office of Alternative Medicine, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Harkin, a lifelong allergy sufferer, recently told USA Today that he tried Aller-Bee-Gone at the enthusiastic recommendation of a fellow Midwesterner, former Rep. Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa).
“It's the most bizarre thing that ever happened to me,” Harkin acknowledges. “But I want you to know something: I've had my allergies completely cleared up. My nose doesn't run. My eyes are cleared up. I don't sneeze any longer.” The curative process isn't a pretty one: Brown directs allergy sufferers to consume 12 tablets every 20 minutes until all symptoms disappear. Harkin ate more than a hundred tablets before his sneezing stopped.
But even if Brown wins a spot in the NIH study, his credibility crusade won't be over. His real nemesis is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which currently classifies dietary supplements as foods, and forbids manufacturers to market these products as having medicinal powers.
“Anytime a product is marketed with a medical claim, it becomes a drug,” says FDA spokesperson Mike Shaffer. “So bee pollen or any other food, herbs, supplements, anything like that, any time a manufacturer makes a medical claim, then the manufacturer is marketing it as if it were a drug, and drugs have to be shown safe and effective and approved.” Without lengthy FDA scrutiny and approval, Shaffer says, “You can't market it with a medical claim.”
This limitation makes Brown “madder than a hornet”; he's convinced that, if the FDA would lighten up a little, the nation would need a lot less Kleenex.
Here, his chief ally is Hatch. The conservative Republican is the Senate sponsor of the “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act,” which would allow manufacturers of dietary supplements to advertise the alleged healing benefits of their products. (Similar legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M.) In addition to high-minded free-market principles, Hatch has a pragmatic reason for supporting the cause: Utah is home to America's largest dietary-supplement industry.
The opportunity to peddle his product as a medicine would be sweeter than honey to Brown, who has cornered the bee-pollen market. Distributed internationally and sold by the jar—about $60 for 144 pills—Aller-Bee-Gone is a bitter mixture of bee pollen and 35 different herbs. Bee pollen is an aggregate product created when bees gather pollen from a variety of flowers and plants; since bees don't surrender this precious haul voluntarily, Brown has invented a special trap which, when placed at the entrance to a beehive, scrapes the pollen off their bodies. The pollen is then mixed with the herbs (which, according to Brown, “potentiate” the pollen's medicinal qualities); made into Aller-Bee-Gone tablets according to Brown's special recipe; and shipped to health-food stores. Clearly, his claims about its medicinal qualities have a way to go before they gain scientific currency: U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist Dave Knox allows that bee pollen is a rich source of protein but believes its curative properties are “folklore.”
Such skepticism hasn't stopped the Phoenix, Ariz., healer. He has neither medical training nor the faintest idea how his product works. He prefers to call bee pollen an “empirical medicine,” meaning that the only evidence that it does work is empirical—not scientific.
“I just mix up a batch in my laboratory—my kitchen—add the high-desert bee pollen, and if it cures the symptoms, why, then, it works,” he says.
Does it work? On Aug. 6, a small throng of Hill climbers are earnestly hoping so. Bottles of Aller-Bee-Gone lined up before him, Brown is seated at an immense table, flanked by a Washington-based lobbyist for the Hatch-Richardson bill and an NIH consultant who is studying the healing effects of shark cartilage. Between them, Brown, a wizened man sporting a three-piece polyester suit, a pair of two-tone loafers, and a snakeskin belt, croaks out orders to allergy sufferers.
“Take all 12 at once!” he commands Senate staffer George Crumbar, who is mistakenly inserting the Aller-Bee-Gone pills singly into his mouth.
Observing the spectacle, the lobbyist unscrews fresh jars of the remedy and waxes philosophical. “You know,” he confides, “this man is really the Henry Ford of affordable health care—he'll save millions of dollars. Hillary Rodham Clinton is barking up the wrong tree, I tell you.” The shark-cartilage consultant—a dead ringer for Rodney Dangerfield—sits back in his chair, scratching his head from time to time.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) enters the room; like most of the supplicants, he approaches hesitantly, as though unsure whether he has come to the right place. Eventually, however, the lawmaker marches over to the table, where a few pill-popping Hill staffers are seated. “How's business?” he booms, pumping hands with Brown. In response, Brown shoves a questionnaire at him and begins quizzing him on his symptoms.
Burton checks off answers on the sheet, then stops at one. “Allergic to almost everything?” he says out loud. Then, with a self-congratulatory chuckle: “Does that include my wife?”
As he jots down notes, Burton scrutinizes the bottle's ingredients: extract of ox, skullcap, slippery elm bark, blessed thistle herb, oat straw. Glancing rather desperately from side to side, he grabs a fistful of Aller-Bee-Gone pills and chugs them down with a glass of water. As it happens, Burton isn't exhibiting any allergic symptoms just now; he suffers from allergies twice a year and merely wants to pick up a couple of bottles to take home. “So this stuff really works, huh?” he says, wiping his lips. “I heard about it from Harkin, but you never know with those Democrats.”
Brown laughs. He himself is a dedicated Republican—such a dedicated Republican that in 1982 he designed a bee-pollen snack for Ronald Reagan. “Somebody told me that Reagan was eatin' this bar with bee pollen in it,” says Brown, “and so I went out and bought the bar, and I looked at it, and I could see that it wasn't a real healthy bar 'cause it had some no-nos in it”—too many starches, sugars, and fats. Brown whipped up his own recipe, featuring the obvious, as well as peanuts, oats, and raisins. He called it “the President's Lunch Bar.” Brown brags that Reagan loved the snack: “He ordered 576 of them when he went to China 'cause he was afraid that some of his staff might not like Chinese food.”
Brown also asserts that Nancy Reagan sent word saying that the President's Lunch Bar was too strong for her taste: Could he concoct something milder? Exchanging almonds for peanuts and dates for raisins, Brown created “the First Lady's Lunch Bar.” Of the two, the presidential bar sells better, but Brown is partial to Nancy's. Brown says that he still sends an order to the Reagans on the 19th of every month. According to invoices he provides, however, these cartons are complimentary, so there's no way to know whether the Reagans actually eat them. There's no doubt that Brown does; anticipating a long and tiring day, Brown has brought along a couple of First Ladies to munch on.
After Burton leaves to vote on—yes—the honeybee bill, Brown tears into one of the bars and turns his attention to poor George Crumbar. The Senate staffer has been sitting miserably for 30 minutes, waiting for Aller-Bee-Gone to work.
“Look at him, Royden,” says the lobbyist. “He looks worse than when he first came in here.”
Brown studies his patient. “How do you feel?” he asks. The staff director sneezes. Brown pours another pile of tablets on the table. “Take another 12,” he commands. As Crumbar shovels the dosage into his mouth, Brown sits back in his chair and watches the man cringe and cough.
“It'll work,” he predicts. “If your problem is allergy-related, it'll work. But if it isn't allergy-related, you might need one of our other cures.”
C.C. Pollen Co. carries an entire line of bee-pollen-based products, which, Brown claims, can cure everything from heart disease to cancer to gastrointestinal diseases. (The ulcer cure is rather unnervingly called “Stomach-Bee-Gone.”) If the FDA would only lift its marketing restrictions, he insists, his bee-pollen cures could save 1,000,600 lives every year. That, he explains, is the number of Americans who die from degenerative diseases every year.
“We don't need anyone dyin' from suffocation, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease,” he growls.
Crumbar eventually departs, still sniffling. Undaunted, Brown speculates that if he can bypass the FDA, there's no telling what could happen. For example, the U.S. government—instead of buying up vaccines and inoculating every child—could purchase his pollen tablets and pass them out for free.
“It would cost far less than the billion-dollar mess we've got in health care today,” he reasons, “and you're cured for a lifetime.”
Brown won't give up easily. If the NIH selects bee pollen as one of its subjects for study, he'll return to the Hill in September to discuss the testing protocol. He's hoping at that time to snag a meeting with President Clinton.
“He's got that terrible raspy voice,” says Brown, “and it's a darn shame because we've got the tablets right here that could cure him instantly.” He pauses for a moment. “Actually,” he amends, “with his problem, it might take as much as two hours.”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Jo Rivers.