13th case identified among ill workers

    • Anonymous
      February 7, 2008 at 7:19 am

      13th case identified among ill workers
      But contact with pig tissue came elsewhere at plant
      Pioneer Press
      Article Last Updated: 02/06/2008 10:45:15 PM CST

      An exhaustive review of medical records has identified a 13th pork plant worker in Austin, Minn., who appears to have suffered a mysterious neurological illness.

      The employee is the first victim who didn’t work at the now-infamous “head table” at Quality Pork Processors.

      The discovery has expanded the Minnesota Department of Health’s investigation, but state officials said their working theory about the cause still holds up.

      The 12 workers sickened over the past year all worked in the same room, where compressed air was used to blow brains out of hogs’ heads and prepare them for sale, mostly as food to Asian markets. The unusual air process – used at only three U.S. plants until it was discontinued last year – may have spread pig brain particles into the air and into the sickened workers.

      But the pig disassembly process doesn’t end there. The remains of the hogs’ heads are dropped down a chute and dumped into the rendering plant run by adjacent Hormel Foods Corp. The 13th victim worked here, for Hormel, and state officials suspect the harmful particles simply dripped or filtered down to his level.

      “Everything that’s inedible from QPP goes to the rendering plant,” said Richard Danilla, assistant state epidemiologist. “Our hypothesis is as the brains were being blown out, the remnants of the blown brains were going to the rendering plant. So people were exposed there just as they were exposed in QPP.”

      Health investigators were in Austin on Wednesday interviewing 40 workers in the rendering plant, which Danilla described as a series of augers and conveyor belts that feed leftover pig materials into a cooker that ultimately produces agricultural feed.
      The 13th worker was discovered when state investigators reviewed workers’ medical records, mostly in Austin and nearby Rochester, and checked for suspicious neurological symptoms.

      The additional case occurred months ago, and has not been confirmed yet. Danilla said the medical records review has turned up a couple other possible cases as well.

      The investigation has drawn national attention, particularly when federal health investigators became involved last month and two similar cases were discovered at a packinghouse in Indiana that also had used the compressed air process.

      The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published an update of the investigation last week. Danilla said one motivation was to bring this problem to the attention of packinghouses worldwide, in case there are any in other countries using the same compressed-air process.

      Investigators and doctors in Austin and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester also are perplexed by the illness itself, which limits mobility and causes numbness and tingling in arms and legs. It’s clearly an autoimmune disease, which means something is triggering the immune system to attack the body.

      But there is no existing diagnosis that matches this set of symptoms and test results. It appears similar to chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP, but it’s not a perfect match.

      The treatment of this disease is the same as for CIDP – either steroid medications or an expensive antibody treatment called immunoglobulin, said Dr. Daniel Lachance, a Mayo Clinic neurologist who has treated most of the patients.

      Still, Lachance said, it is important to understand and define this unknown illness.

      Lachance said both QPP and Hormel have been supportive of the investigation, and so far there have been no financial barriers to ordering tests or follow-up appointments for the current and former workers. Some have taken medication and recovered, while a few have had lingering disabilities that have prevented them from working.

      The first known case involved a man who returned to work after being treated and then suffered a second flare-up – and then a third, Lachance said. Some of the workers are Hispanic, he said, and the company’s Spanish-speaking nurses have been invaluable, first in helping discover the outbreak and then communicating important medical information to the workers.

      “They’re quiet, reserved individuals,” Lachance said of the workers. “Most of them have no interest in being off work. Most of them need to work, so they’re worried … about paying their bills and meeting their financial obligations as much as they are concerned about their symptoms.”

      State investigators have had occasional difficulties tracking down current and former workers.

      Danilla said they were told early on about one potentially sickened worker who has since moved to Mexico and hasn’t been located. There also are cases in which names in employment records do not perfectly match names in medical records, adding another challenge to the investigation.

      Jeremy Olson can be reached at jolson@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5583.

    • February 7, 2008 at 10:46 am

      holy mackeral that is so scary! Thank you for posting.

      I fix chicken for the family…making sure it is cooked well…but can not bring myself to eat it myself. Pork i the same way. I will fix pork for dinner and for some reason it is very difficult to talk myself into eating it. This adds to my neurotic ways…yikes!