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January 17, 2008 at 5:15 am

Feds Probe Slaughterhouse Illness Link

Federal health officials are investigating if there’s a link between illnesses reported by several workers at a pig slaughterhouse in Indiana and those seen recently in workers at a Minnesota pork plant. All the employees work in areas where pigs’ heads have been processed using a technique in which compressed air is shot into their skulls until their brains spill out, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Lola Russell said.

“It may be associated with this particular technique of using high-pressure air to remove the pig’s brain,” Russell said.

After the Minnesota slaughterhouse illness was reported, the CDC looked into slaughtering practices in 25 large pork processing plants in 13 states, and found only two other plants – one in Indiana, the other in Nebraska – that used compressed air to remove pigs’ brains.

Minnesota health officials said the pork plants in all three states have voluntarily stopped the practice.

The Indiana workers’ symptoms included changes in sensation and weakness in their limbs, Russell said. Those symptoms are similar to a mysterious cluster of neurological symptoms reported last month among 12 workers at a pork slaughterhouse in Austin, Minn.

The number of sick workers in Indiana, details of their conditions, the name of the company and the company’s location were not disclosed.

Elizabeth Hart, a spokeswoman for the Indiana State Department of Health, said she could not comment until a meeting with a state epidemiologist set for Thursday morning.

In the Minnesota case, health officials initially suspect the workers were exposed to something in the brain tissue that triggered the illness. Officials are continuing to investigate, but so far they haven’t identified any viruses or bacteria that could be causing the disease.

Five of the 12 workers afflicted have been diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, a rare immune disorder that attacks the nerves and produces tingling, numbness and weakness in the arms and legs, sometimes causing lasting damage.

Dr. Kenneth Gorson, a neurologist at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston, has said that victims can recover fairly quickly if the illness is caught early. However, at least one of the Minnesota workers was told she may never work again.

Minnesota state epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said the discovery of the Indiana illness could help her investigation. “That may help us figure out why these workers are getting sick,” she said.