Illinois inmates' health problems prompt lawsuit over soy-rich menus

By Monica Eng
Friday, December 25, 2009

CHICAGO -- Soy-enhanced chili mac, turkey patties with soy, soy-studded country gravy, soy-blend hot dogs, soy-spiked sloppy Joes, Polish sausages packed with soy, soy chicken patties.

These aren't items from the latest vegetarian diet, but rather dishes served over a week at Danville Correctional Center, according to a recent menu.

They're also the basis of a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court this summer by nine plaintiffs who allege that the Illinois Department of Corrections is endangering the health of the inmates -- especially those with allergies, sensitivities and existing gastrointestinal and thyroid problems -- by serving them too much soy.

Tens of thousands of inmates in Illinois prisons are being fed "up to 100 grams" of soy protein a day, according to the Weston A. Price Foundation, which is funding the lawsuit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming about 25 grams of soy protein per day.

The District-based foundation promotes the consumption of whole, traditional and largely unprocessed foods. Foundation President Sally Fallon called the soy diet served in Illinois prisons "the Tuskegee of the 21st century," referring to the syphilis experiments performed on African-Americans from the 1930s to '70s.

"Never before have we had a large population like this being served such a high level of soy with almost no other choice," she said.

The plaintiffs are "suffering irreparable, actual harm by being forced to continue to eat food that has too much soy in it," according to an amended complaint filed in June.

The effects have ranged from acute allergic reactions and heart problems to gastrointestinal distress and thyroid dysfunction, it says.

Fallon said the foundation got involved after inmates from various Illinois facilities contacted her. Last month, the foundation hosted a local panel on the soy issue before its annual national conference in Schaumburg, Ill.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would stop the Department of Corrections from serving soy in Illinois prisons as well as damages from the prisons' contracted health-care provider.

The department says it started serving soy-enhanced foods in March 2004 as a cost-cutting measure. But it declined to comment on most aspects of the pending litigation and is awaiting a ruling on its motion to dismiss the suit.

Nancy Chapman, executive director of the Soyfoods Association of North America, said she doubts that prisoners are consuming as much soy as the foundation alleges. "One hundred grams of any protein from plants or animals would not be economically feasible and would be an enormous load on the kidneys," Chapman said.

-- Chicago Tribune


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