Mystery Illness at Quality Pork Processors in Minnesota Has Workers Worried, Scientists Baffled

Workers at Quality Pork Processors, Inc. in Minnesota are getting a rare <"">disease called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and many  others are worried, says their union.  There is an area on the slaughterhouse floor at Quality Pork that is known as the “head table,” where workers cut up pigs’ heads and shoot compressed air into the skulls to remove their brains, a noisy, smelly, bloody process that involves dismantling over 1,100 pigs’ heads an hour.  The relatively uncommon practice was suspended at Quality Pork earlier this week because during a recent eight-month period, 11 head table workers developed numbness, tingling, or other neurological symptoms.  Some scientists suspect inhaled brain matter—turned into mist when compressed—may have triggered the diseases or that workers may have come into contact with something dangerous and then touched their noses or mouths.  Scientists are working to determine if there is something in the brain matter that could be causing the symptoms.  The Minnesota Health Department says they are not ruling out other causes.

The company has harvested pork brains on and off for years, depending on demand, but it’s not known why workers began getting sick and it is unclear how many of the plant’s 1,300 employees worked at the head table.  Safety glasses, helmets, gloves, and belly guards protected head-table workers; however, nothing protected their mouths or noses.  Workers are now required to wear face shields and protective sleeves.

Five workers have been diagnosed with  CIDP, a rare immune disorder that attacks the nerves and produces tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and legs, sometimes causing chronic damage.  CIDP attacks the lining of the nerves, slowing or blocking the brain’s signals to the muscles; exactly what triggers the attack is unknown.  Victims can recover quickly if the illness is caught early, but in advanced cases, treatment arrests the disease but doesn’t reverse it and involves immune globulin infusions or a plasma-exchange technique that removes antibodies from the blood.  Another option is the steroid prednisone.  Typically, new cases of CIDP occur at the rate of one or two per 100,000 people annually, according the Mayo Clinic.

Using compressed air to remove hog brains is relatively uncommon because many plants don’t even them and those that do simply split the skulls open.  Some of the biggest pork processors—Tyson Foods Inc., JBS Swift & Co., and Cargill Inc.—said they don’t handle brains because the market isn’t big enough; none of their workers have reported symptoms similar to those at Quality Pork.  Quality Pork has not said what it does with the brains; however, sold fresh and in cans, pork brains are eaten in some parts of the country, but it is a small market, and the American Meat Institute—representing most U.S. pork processors—does not track sales.

State health officials said there is no evidence the public is at risk—either from those afflicted or from food leaving the plant, which supplies Hormel Foods Inc.  The American Meat Institute said they are watching the situation very closely.

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