Originally published March 13 2008
Illness Affecting Meat Packing Employees Stump Medical Experts
by Jo Hartley
(NaturalNews) It is a mystery. Unusual symptoms have begun affecting some citizens of the small city in the Midwest. Patients all complain of the same symptoms: fatigue, weakness, pain, and numbness and tingling in the lower extremities. As the symptoms progress, nerve damage occurs. It does not appear contagious, as family members are not becoming sick. The one connection the ailing people all have is that they work for the local meat packing plant, Quality Pork Processors.
Austin, Minnesota's largest employer is the processed meat giant, Hormel Foods. Quality Pork Processors is the second largest with 1,300 employees, and they are located immediately next to Hormel. The plant kills and butchers 19,000 hogs each day and the majority of them go right next door to Hormel.
Most employees earn $11-12 an hour working eight-hour shifts along a conveyor belt in the plant. Instead of an assembly line, however, it is a "disassembly" line. The purpose of which is to carve up the hog carcasses as they pass along the conveyor belt. It is grueling work.
As the employees began to report their symptoms, nurses employed by the plant observed an ominous pattern. Three employees complained about "heavy legs." There was a fourth employee as well, and they feared an epidemic of sorts was beginning.
The first man became ill in December of 2006. He was hospitalized for two weeks with significant neurological symptoms and loss of function in his lower body. Tests revealed that his spinal cord was considerably inflamed. The cause appeared to be an autoimmune reaction. That is, his body was incorrectly attacking his own nerves as if they were an organism or a germ to be destroyed. Doctors were perplexed, but the standard treatment of steroids seemed to be improving his symptoms. Over several months he recovered and he was able to go back to work in the spring. Within weeks he was sick again with the same symptoms. He recovered again and returned to work again, only to become ill yet again.
This employee's job at the meat packing plant was at the "head table," the part of the disassembly line where workers removed the meat from the severed hog heads. His job was to extract the brains from the hog heads with a hose blowing compressed air.
By November 2007 other cases began to appear. There were 12 in all, six men and six women. Through a survey of plant employees, they were able to ascertain that the sick employees were all working at or near the head table.
The plant owners and doctors realized they were experiencing an outbreak of some kind and called the Minnesota Department of Health, who sought the assistance of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though comparatively small, the outbreak investigation became urgent because of the seriousness of the symptoms.
In early November, Dr. Aaron DeVries, a health department epidemiologist, toured the plant and carefully examined their medical records. He could not find any comparisons between the symptoms being exhibited at the plant and mad cow disease or trichinosis. It was not contagious. Nor did it seem to be a threat to anyone who ate pork.
Several weeks later Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, toured the plant. She and the owner spent considerable time observing the processes at the head table. Specifically, the process that was called "blowing brains." As a hog head would reach the head table, the employee would insert a metal hose into the opening by which the spinal cord attaches to the skull. The hose would then be used to blow high pressure blasts of compressed air into the skull, turning the brain into a messy pulp that often sprayed and squirted not only the hose operator, but anyone and anything nearby.
The extracted brains were then collected and poured into containers to be shipped to China, Korea, and even parts of the United States, where cooks like to stir fry them and some people like to add them to their scrambled eggs.
The brain blower was separated from the other employees by a Plexiglas shield that stopped to allow enough space for the hog heads to pass under on the conveyor belt. This space also allowed for brain tissue to splatter anyone working nearby. The employees were wearing hard hats, gloves, lab coats, and safety glasses. Many had exposed arms, however, and none had face shields to prevent them from swallowing or inhaling sprayed brain tissue.
As Dr. Lynfield and the owner observed this process, they concluded that the harvesting of hog brains was likely the cause of the mysterious symptoms and the plant halted that process immediately. Face shields were also ordered for employees at the head table.
Epidemiologists contacted hog slaughterhouses around the US and discovered that only two others were using similar "brain blowing" techniques for extracting brain tissue. One plant in Nebraska, also owned by Hormel, reported no similar symptoms. The other plant, in Indiana, reported several possible cases that are now being investigated.
The use of compressed air in meat processing has now been stopped in all meat packing plants; however, this technique has been used since 1998. Why does exposure to hog brain tissue cause these symptoms in humans, and why now?
Initially, health officials thought that the hogs had some kind of infection that was being spread to humans. After extensive testing to date, however, no indications of infection have been found. So the investigators have turned their focus to the possibility that the hog brain itself ignites an intense reaction by the human immune system. Due to various individual sensitivities, some people are more susceptible to this autoimmune response than others.
Health Officials theorize that what may be occurring is something called "immune mimicry." The immune system constructs antibodies to fight any foreign substance (in this case hog brains), but in so doing, the antibodies also attack healthy nerve tissue. This is possibly because human nerve tissue is very similar molecularly to hog brain tissue. We already know that anatomically, hogs are very similar to humans.
How similar biochemically and molecularly has not been extensively researched, until now. An expert at Columbia University has begun testing blood serum from the Minnesota employees to find signs of an immune reaction to the hog tissue. He also plans to study the pig gene for myelin to find out how closely it matches the human one.
Investigators are still not able to explain why the symptoms have only now begun to appear. They are looking for changes in the process that may have caused the reactions.
All of the employees are recovering. Some have returned to their jobs, others are still not able to work. To date, there have been no new cases. Perhaps a definitive answer will be found, perhaps not. Only time will tell.
About the authorJo Hartley
Wife, Mother of 8, and Grandmother of 2
Jo is a 41 year old home educator who has always gravitated toward a natural approach to life. She enjoys learning as much as possible about just about anything!
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