Then there’s this…

December 17, 2007 at 9:04 am

Sounds like they have something else after all, although the story is a bit confusing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

QPP illness may not be chronic

Quality Pork Processors president Kelly Wadding said this morning the Minnesota Department of Health has completed random testing at the plant and is investigating the cause of a neurological illness among 11 employees.

“Hopefully, they can draw some conclusions,” Wadding said, explaining that health officials finished collecting data last night and are changing their diagnosis of the illness.

MDH officials last week identified the condition as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, a rare neurological disorder in which tingling and numbness in the arms and legs occurs.

Now, Wadding said, officials have determined the illness is in fact not chronic or terminal, and can be treated.

“They have determined it is not that rare illness,” Wadding said. “They get treated, they get better, most everybody’s back to work.

“I look at it as good news,” he said.

Wadding said most employees who developed symptoms never left work at QPP.

Also, Wadding added, reports of a 12th person showing symptoms have not been confirmed.

Dr. Daniel Lachance, a Mayo Clinic neurologist, said preliminary tests conducted last week on the 12th worker indicate she has the same symptoms as the 11 others, and she worked in the same area. The evaluation is not yet complete, “but I’m convinced that she has it,” he said. “The preliminary testing is consistent” with the others.

State Epidemiologist Ruth Lynfield said she wasn’t surprised by the new case and said investigators may find even more at the Austin plant or at others. They spent last week talking to hundreds of plant workers, and anyone who reported neurological symptoms was referred to Mayo.

Lachance said a 13th worker was also being evaluated, but preliminary results are not yet available.

The employees all worked in the same area of the plant — the “head table” — where workers slice meat off pigs’ heads and then blast compressed air into the skulls to force the brains out.

The investigation has focused on the compressed air system, which is used by only a few U.S. meat processing plants. It exposes workers to airborne particles of pig blood, tissue and fluids, and went into operation around the same time that the workers first started reporting problems last December.

QPP has stopped using it and now gives employees more protective clothing and face masks.

State health officials have said there is no evidence the public is at risk — either from those afflicted or from any food leaving the plant, which supplies Hormel Foods Inc.

Lachance and Lynfield also said that further testing has ruled out CIDP, a disease in which the immune system for unknown reasons attacks the protective sheath that surrounds nerves. CIDP strikes about 2 out of 100,000 people and can often be disabling.

Lachance said the key to differentiating the condition that the Austin workers have from CIDP is a characteristic of CIDP that involves an interruption or blockage of electrical signaling in and between nerves. Tests now show that none of the 11 has that problem, he said.

While they do have nerve damage caused by their immune systems, he said, at this point it can be categorized only as an inflammatory response that is attacking the nerve sheaths.

Two of the 11 have different symptoms than the others, Lachance said. One has spinal cord problems, and the other has muscle problems. The others have more similar symptoms: tingling, numbness, discomfort in the arms and legs, and varying levels of weakness.

They also described “a very abrupt sense of fatigue,” he said.

One of the workers, for example, played soccer regularly until he started experiencing tingling and numbness in his legs. Now he can’t play and even walking up stairs exhausts him, Lachance said.

The Mayo Clinic is developing a treatment regimen for the workers, he said. Most have not been completely evaluated, but he expects that with help most will improve.

“If we never exactly figure it out and patients stop getting sick, that’s good,” he said. “We’re happy with that.”