'Celestial Drops' no cure for canker
Florida researched the use of water, possibly mystically blessed, to cure the disease.
By Jim Stratton
Sentinel Staff Writer
July 5, 2005
Four years ago, as the state labored to eradicate citrus canker by destroying trees, officials rejected other disease-fighting techniques, saying unproven methods would waste precious time and resources.
But for more than six months, the state, at the behest of then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, did pursue one alternative method -- a very alternative method.
Researchers worked with a rabbi and a cardiologist to test "Celestial Drops," promoted as a canker inhibitor because of its "improved fractal design," "infinite levels of order" and "high energy and low entropy."
But the cure proved useless against canker. That's because it was water -- possibly, mystically blessed water.
The "product is a hoax and not based on any credible known science," the state's chief of entomology, nematology and plant pathology wrote to agriculture officials and fellow scientists after testing Celestial Drops in October 2001.
In the same letter, Wayne Dixon recommended that the state break off its relationship with the promoters of Celestial Drops.
"We have expended considerable effort in trying to responsibly deal with this group and their products," he stated. "I wish to maintain our standing in the scientific community and not allow these individuals to use our hard-earned credibility for further name-dropping."
Dixon's sentiments were not a surprise to other scientists.
"The presentation of Celestial Drops as a citrus canker treatment was . . . largely unintelligible," according to a memo written more than a year earlier by one of the state's chief plant pathologists. "In general, the proposal comes across as unscientific and not worth pursuing."
So why did Florida spend months discussing and developing test protocols for Celestial Drops?
The initial push came from Harris, now a U.S. House representative and candidate for U.S. Senate. Harris, the granddaughter of legendary citrus baron Ben Hill Griffin Jr., said she was introduced to one of the product's promoters, New York Rabbi Abe Hardoon, in 2000.
Hardoon did not want to discuss Celestial Drops when contacted by the Orlando Sentinel.
But Harris said Hardoon told her he was working with Israeli scientists who had developed a compound that made plants resistant to canker. Harris acted as intermediary and urged state agriculture officials to work with Hardoon and his associates.
"I met with those [Israeli] scientists," Harris said Friday. "They were confident they had a cure for canker."
Harris said she then stepped back and allowed Hardoon and the state to work out the details. Agriculture Department officials insist she applied no political pressure.
"She just wanted to make sure it was brought to our attention," said agriculture spokesman Terence McElroy.
State records, however, suggest Harris had a keen interest in the project.
She was repeatedly sent copies of the letters and memos bouncing between Florida canker officials and Hardoon. In August 2001, Harris herself jotted a note to Hardoon.
"I would love to see this work," it says.
All the while, some canker researchers questioned why they were cooperating with Hardoon when he had produced little evidence that Celestial Drops worked. In one memo, a University of Florida citrus scientist suggested agriculture officials had been "put in a politically difficult position."
It did not say by whom.
In the past 10 years, Florida has been swamped by companies claiming to have a cure for canker.
In virtually all cases, the state has thanked the companies for their interest and delivered the same message: "Test the product using accepted scientific principles and then show us the results."
"We don't do the testing for them," said Tim Schubert, the head of plant pathology in the state's Bureau of Entomology, Nematology & Plant Pathology. "We're just not set up for that."
But though the state told other companies it could not test their products, it made an exception for Celestial Drops. After months of correspondence, researchers took the unusual step of testing the product for Hardoon and his partner, New York cardiologist Artur Spokojny.
In a two-day test in October 2001, they soaked canker cultures in Celestial Drops -- which by then had been given a new name -- and determined it had no effect.
The results weren't a surprise to researchers. After all, one bit of promotional material said the liquid they were testing was so pure the company had been allowed "to distribute this material as drinking water."
Department officials say they agreed to test the product to finally prove it was useless against canker -- not because of Hardoon's association with Harris.
Meanwhile, some scientists were wondering what role an ancient branch of Jewish mysticism played in the development of the solution.
One document in the state's files indicates an official had searched the Internet for information on Hardoon and Spokojny and discovered both practiced Kabbalah, a religious movement whose followers include celebrities such as Madonna. Hardoon also teaches Kabbalah.
Mystically blessed water is a vital part of the faith and is sold for $3.80 a bottle at Kabbalah centers throughout the country.
Believers maintain the blessings performed over the water change its molecular structure and imbue it with supernatural healing powers. The traits attributed to so-called Kabbalah water -- "elegant crystalline structures" and "high energy and low entropy" -- are virtually identical to those of Celestial Drops.
Hardoon said he did not want to discuss any possible connection between the two.
Asked whether the mystery cure was really Kabbalah water, he said, "I can't really give you that information."
Asked whether the canker project was related at all to Kabbalah, he said, "It is, and it isn't."
He then referred all further questions to the Kabbalah Centre of Los Angeles, headquarters of the movement. Officials there did not return calls, and Spokojny was not available for comment.
Harris seemed surprised Friday that the product she once hoped might cure canker may be nothing more than blessed water. In fact, after being contacted by the Orlando Sentinel, she called Hardoon. She said he blamed Celestial Drops' poor test performance on state scientists.
"He said they didn't follow the proper protocols," Harris said.
As for the possible Kabbalah connection, Harris said she was in the dark.
"Clearly, it isn't something I knew about," she said. "This is the first time I've heard any of this."