By LIZETTE ALVAREZ New York Times
One too many bouts of flatulence and cramping has led a Florida inmate to sue the Department of Corrections, arguing that the prison’s soy-based turkey dogs and sloppy Joes amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
Eric D. Harris, 34, who is serving a life sentence for sexual battery on a child, said the soy in his prison chow is threatening his health by endangering his thyroid and immune system. Florida prisons serve meals with 50 percent soy and 50 percent poultry three times a day, a mixture that costs half as much as using beef and pork, the Department of Corrections says. The cost per meal: $1.70 a day for each inmate. Florida prisons first began serving soy-based meals in 2009.
As an inmate at the Lake Correctional Institution, near Orlando, Mr. Harris, a former paralegal, has few culinary choices. He can eat 100 grams of soy protein a day, use his own money to buy food at the commissary or eat a vegan diet, he said in the lawsuit, which was filed in state court in Tallahassee and which The Orlando Sentinel reported on this week.
Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections, said inmates can choose an alternative vegan meal if they do not want soy. “We have a constitutional obligation to feed them healthy, nutritious food, but we don’t have an obligation to feed them beef,” she said.
“Excessive soy can be toxic to the thyroid gland,” said Sally Fallon Morell, the president and treasurer of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates a diet of whole, largely unprocessed foods and food high in saturated fats, and is publicizing the lawsuit. “It can have hormonal effects.”
It turns out that Mr. Harris is not alone in his objection. Nine inmates at the Danville Correctional Center in Illinois filed a similar lawsuit there in 2009, which is pending. That lawsuit is being financed by the Price Foundation.
Prisoners who have soy allergies or other ailments are especially at risk, said Ms. Fallon Morell, who added that her organization has received hundreds of calls from inmates and their relatives in Illinois and Florida who complain about the ill effects from too much soy. Illinois switched to soy-based meals in 2004 to save money.
Ms. Fallon Morrell said Illinois prisons serve more than 100 grams of soy protein a day — much more than the 25 grams the government recommends.
Studies about the benefits and dangers of soy are mostly contradictory, with some extolling its virtues and others noting the risks when used to excess. But nutritionists say that, for the most part, eating soy is better for most people than eating mostly beef or pork.
“Plant protein is more healthful for us, and people who consume a more plant-based diet have better health outcomes,” said Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, an organization of food and nutrition professionals. “However, I can’t speak for how the soy is processed. Like anything, the more we process them and break them down and isolate proteins, we lose some of the goodness and benefits.”
As for taxpayer savings, soy is typically cheaper than meat, Ms. Giancoli said. “But just because it’s cheaper is not a good reason to be against it,” she added.
A version of this article appeared in print on November 12, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: Soy Diet Is Cruel and Unusual, Florida Inmate Claims.