Quality Pork Processors, Austin, Minn., has stopped harvesting brain tissue from pig carcasses as a precaution after 11 workers came down with neurological illness, according to Kelly Wadding, the company's president.
"We've stopped harvesting brain product with compressed air," Wadding told Meatingplace.com. The company also has added face shields on helmets and covered workers' exposed arms in the plant sector where swine heads and organs are processed. Workers in that area are the only ones who have developed and been treated for the unusual symptoms.
"These are all just precautionary measures," noted Wadding. Officials still do not know what has caused the illness. "The Health Department recommended these steps, so we implemented them and will continue to do so," he said.
All of the effected workers have been released from the hospital, and all but two have returned to work.
The Minnesota Department of Health officials are investigating this cluster neurological illness in workers at QPP and are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine if workers in other pork processing plants elsewhere have experienced anything similar.
Wadding said nothing has been ruled out, including chemical, viral or bacterial causes. "We're just going to keep checking things off the list," he told Meatingplace.com, adding that MDH is also checking the workers' homes and recreational facilities.
MDH officials reported that in five cases the diagnosis was consistent with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, which is caused by damage to the myelin sheath (the fatty covering that wraps around and protects nerve fibers) of the peripheral nerves.
According to public health officials, the sickness causes symptoms such as weakness, tingling, numbness of arms and legs, a feeling of heaviness in the lower extremities and a strong sense of fatigue. Symptoms can take weeks to months to develop.
QPP was harvesting the pork brains for export, which Wadding said is a minor part of the company's business and the process has simply stopped. Other than that, there have been no production delays at the 1,300-worker plant that processes about 17,000 hogs daily, primarily for Hormel Foods.
"The Department of Health has assured us the food supply is safe," Wadding noted.