Pork Workers Disease Said to be New IllnessApr 18, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP Researchers at the Mayo Clinic say an illness seen in pork industry workers is likely a new disease. While the pork workers disease is similar to some known conditions, is not an exact match to any; neither is its cause. Apparently, the seemingly new illness is a result of inhaling microscopic flecks of pig brain.
Eighteen pork plant workers in Minnesota, at least five in Indiana, and one in Nebraska have come down with a mysterious neurological condition they seem to have contracted while removing brains from slaughtered pigs, according to U.S. researchers and health officials. The new disorder causes a range of symptoms; patients complain of burning sensations, numbness, and weakness in the arms and legs. For some, walking is difficult and work impossible and, while symptoms have slowly lessened in severity in some, it has not completely disappeared in any of the patients.
In one such case, a slaughterhouse worker came down with fever, malaise, and rapidly progressing weakness and was ultimately unable to walk and had evidence in his bloodstream and spinal fluid of inflammation. Over the course of a few months he regained most of his function. Last April, he returned to work and within two months, developed widespread pain and sensation or weakness. He was taken off work in June and recovered over the summer, returning to the plant in September. By November, his painful symptoms returned.
"As far as we are aware it is a brand new disorder," said Dr. Daniel Lachance of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who presented his findings at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in Chicago. Lachance has followed the 18 Minnesota patients, who all suffer from nerve issues that typically affect the legs. Lachance said tests revealed patients had damage to the nerves at the root level near the spinal cord and at the far reaches of their motor nerves, where the nerves connect with muscle. The first cases of the condition were reported in November of last year at Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minnesota, where workers used compressed air to blow pork brains out of the animals’ skull cavities. Lachance feels this process is eliciting an inflammatory response. Lachance thinks it is possible that bits of pig brain stimulated an immune response in the bodies of the workers, causing their immune systems to improperly attack their own nerve tissue. "It is a very strong association—the fact that we are talking about harvesting (pig brains) and potentially exposing workers to nervous system tissue and then they are coming down with a neurological syndrome," he said.
So far, no infectious agent has been found that could explain the illness. Dr. James Sejvar of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta said it is unlikely the condition could be passed from person to person. "It doesn't appear this is in any way a food borne illness," Sejvar told a media briefing, saying the processing technique used appears to be very uncommon. "We canvassed 25 of the largest pork processors in the United States," Sejvar said. "We have identified only these three plants that use this process." All three plants have suspended the processing practice as a precaution.