Pork plant employees contract neurological illness

Health Commissioner
State Health Department Commissioner Sanne Magnan.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

In the past year, 11 workers at Quality Pork Processors in Austin have developed inflammatory diseases characterized by muscle weakness and severe fatigue. Two workers were hospitalized.

Officials say they do not know what is causing the illnesses. But they say there is no evidence that the general public or the food supply is at risk.

The first cases of illness at the Austin plant showed up in December 2006. Throughout the spring and early summer, more workers got sick and occupational health staff at the plant began noticing similarities in their conditions.

After consulting with physicians at two nearby health clinics, company staff notified the Minnesota Department of Health in October that there might be a problem.

Department investigators have been poring over the cases since then. So far they say they have determined that the workers experienced an inflammatory response to some kind of trigger. But they haven't identified the trigger yet. It could be an infectious agent within the plant, or even a chemical exposure.

Officials say they do not know what is causing the illnesses. But they say there is no evidence that the general public or the food supply is at risk.

Investigators are still trying to interview some of the sick workers, but they say at least five of the cases appear to be consistent with an uncommon disease called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or CIDP.

CIDP is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system mistakenly attacks peripheral nerves.

Commissioner Sanne Magnan says generally the workers' symptoms include a feeling of numbness and heaviness in the lower extremities, along with a strong sense of fatigue.

"People who develop these types of illnesses may first experience some weakness, or decreased feeling or tingling in their arms or legs. It can be a very insidious onset," said Magnan. "The disease is treated with some success. And people affected, however, may have some residual numbness or weakness."

Some of the workers have been able to work throughout their illness. Others have been temporarily disabled and are undergoing rehabilitation.

All 11 employees worked in the same room at the plant. It's an area where meat and other tissues are extracted from the heads of slaughtered hogs.

Minnesota Commissioner of Agriculture Gene Hugoson says investigators believe the problem is confined to this particular area of the plant.

"Every indication is that anyone else in the plant outside of this location is not affected," said Hugoson. "For that reason it's very much felt that the commonality here, the common denominator, is really something that's going on inside this particular room or in this area, where this process is, in fact, occurring."

Kelly Wadding, president and CEO of Quality Pork Processors, says the company has taken several precautions to make sure that other workers are not exposed to whatever is causing the illnesses.

"We've already given some of our employees a face mask, and discontinued some operations that could be potential. Again, we have no idea of the cause," said Wadding. "But we do want to take every precautionary step that the Department of Health recommends, and that we see that could possibly contribute to this."

The company has also given workers protective arms sleeves and provided them with showers after their shifts. Waddington adds the plant has discontinued a procedure that involves using compressed air to harvest brain tissue from hogs.

The Department of Agriculture says it will compare some of the procedures at the Austin plant with procedures at other pork processors to see if some changes need to be made. The department is asking other pork processors to review their employee records for signs of similar illnesses.

The Minnesota Department of Health is also sending out an alert to health providers statewide, to ask them to be on the lookout for unusual inflammatory illnesses.

Quality Pork Processors is Austin's second-largest employer, behind Hormel Foods, with some 1,300 employees. It slaughters and processes up to 16,000 hogs a day for Hormel and several other companies.

Officials say there is no evidence that those products are affected in any way by the illnesses at the Austin plant.

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