A leading researcher is suing the National Academy of Sciences, alleging that it plagiarized his writings on the recommended dietary allowances -- better known as the RDAs -- for vitamins and minerals.

The action is likely to rekindle a long debate over how the government decides what Americans should eat and whether that policy is made on the basis of science or politics.

RDAs are amounts of 18 essential vitamins and minerals that each person is encouraged to eat each day. RDAs also form the foundation for determining what schoolchildren eat for lunch and what federally funded supplemental programs, such as food stamps, will cover. Many packaged foods carry labels that say what percentage of RDAs they supply.

Victor Herbert, a lawyer and physician who also is a nutrition researcher at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, filed the suit. It charges that the 10th edition of the RDAs, which the academy published in October 1989, plagiarized copyrighted material Herbert wrote on iron and on the vitamins B12 and folate, or folic acid.

"They copied my figures verbatim and published it as {if} created by their subcommittee," said Herbert, who also is chief of the hematology and nutrition laboratory at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in the Bronx. "Their subcommittee plagiarized my work and bowdlerized it."

Herbert said the underlying issue is that academy president Frank Press is "pandering to pop politics" in making decisions about the RDAs rather than following scientific fact.

"That's nonsense," said Calvin H. Cobb, Jr., a lawyer representing the academy. "Dr. Herbert is given to speaking in colorful language."

The situation began when Herbert was part of an expert committee, chosen by the academy to update the published RDA report, which is revised every five years. The committee recommended lowering the RDA for vitamins A and C. While there are claims that these chemicals help prevent colds and cancer, the committee found no good evidence to support them.

That decision put the committee at odds with an earlier academy report, "Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer." Unable to reconcile the differences, Press disbanded the committee and informed the National Institutes of Health, which had paid $650,000 to update the RDAs, that the revised edition would not be published.

"When they suppressed our report, Frank Press said that it was scientifically incompetent and no good," Herbert said. "This was a lie."

In 1986, NIH told the academy that it would either have to publish the RDAs to fulfill the terms of the contract or return the money. In the meantime, Herbert copyrighted the sections of the unpublished report he had written, and attempted with several other committee members to have the full edition published by someone other than the academy.

The academy then named a new panel, which it called a subcommittee of the older committee, in 1987 to update the unpublished RDA report. The NIH paid the academy $160,000 to finance the subcommittee's work.

The revision was finally published as the 10th edition in October 1989, with the subcommittee listed as author. Levels of vitamins A and C remained higher than what the unpublished committee had recommended. Herbert's suit charges that the sections on folate, iron and vitamin B12 are plagiarized from his original work.

Last week, the lawyers for the academy filed a motion for dismissal saying that if there were copyright infringement, Herbert's complaint should be filed against the U.S. government. A hearing on the motion is scheduled Oct. 17.

The suit, which also alleges that the academy "actively interfered" with Herbert's ability to market and publish his work with other publishers, seeks damages for copyright infringement, asks for a halt of the further publication, sale and marketing of the 10th edition and seeks destruction of all copies remaining in the academy's possession.

"The complaint has no merit," said Cobb, the academy's lawyer.