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Mysterious Pork Worker Disease Persists

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The head tables are gone at Quality Pork Producers (QPP) in Austin, MN, Indiana Packers Corp. in Delphi, IN, and Hormel Foods Corp. in Fremont, NE.

But the disease doctors think head table operations caused-Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy (PIN) - is not.

In late November, more than 20 people demonstrated at the Quality Pork Producers plant in Austin against the treatment workers who developed PIN have received from the pork processor.

They carried signs saying, The Hospitals Prescribed Us Steroids, Science Doesn't Have Cure For Our Disease and Hormel and QPP Guilty For Our Disease.

Eighteen workers at QPP - five at Indiana Packers Corp. and at least one at the Hormel Foods Corp. in Fremont, NE - have developed the mystery disease since November 2006 characterized by tingling and numbness in the limbs leading to weakness, debility and chronic fatigue. Some have been hospitalized.

Nor is PIN easily treated.

None of the patients Dr. Daniel Lachance, a Mayo Clinic neurologist, has seen, has completely recovered, he told the Associated Press.

martha

While some PIN patients stabilize and improve - requiring only pain medication - others have relapsed and/or had to undergo treatments to suppress their immune systems, say medical reports.

One worker's symptoms improved after "a period of rehabilitation," says Neurology Today but, "a few months after returning to work developed the polyradicular pattern experienced by other workers."

Susan Kruse, a 16 year QPP worker, was reduced to a walker earlier this year and told the Associated Press in April she was unable to stand on her feet long enough to work despite getting intravenous drug treatments every other week.

Like all slaughterhouse operations, Big Pork isn't big on the public seeing or knowing what happens at the head tables.

Nor does it appreciate the press reporting food scares which "food disparagement laws" on the books in 13 states were designed to gag.

But unfortunately "aerosolized blood and organ particulate matter" a.k.a. brain mist is central to the PIN illness - and a recognized risk in the Occupational Health Act.

Workers who developed PIN were in charge of turbo-charging a hog's brains out through the base of its skull or snout with a high pressure hose and "pouring" the brains into containers for shipment as a human food delicacy.

While a Plexiglas shield protected the hose operator from - is there a euphemism? - blowback, other table workers had exposed arms and no face shields to prevent breathing or swallowing the pulverized brain material.

Scientists theorize the "operational byproduct" provoked an autoimmune, inflammatory response in workers' "nerve roots proximally, and peripheral motor nerves distally" and treat PIN patients with steroids or intravenous immunoglobulins.

Why would PIN surface now when head table operations are not new? Some theorize it has a long incubation period; others that the ever increasing speeds at slaughter houses are causing-again, no euphemism - more splatter.

The important thing, says the Minnesota Health Department, is that original reports that the workers had multiple sclerosis are false.

And that the pork that neurologically impaired workers so severely they are struggling to walk a year after they were exposed to it, is safe to eat.

So safe, scientists actually sought "chemical toxins at the plant" as an initial source of PIN (See: carbon monoxide leak at World Trade Center collapse site.)

So safe, the Minnesota Health Department includes a recipe for scrambled brains at the end of its 53-page "Investigation into Risk Factors for Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy" report along with a photo of a can of Rose Pork Brains with Milk Gravy.

And so safe no one questions whether pulverizing pork brains on an assembly line until they are airborne might be the same perversion of the food chain that brought us SARS and Mad Cow. (Caused by unhygienic slaughter of civet cats and manmade cannibalism in farm animals respectively.)

Back at the demonstration, Salma Hernandez tells the Post-Bulletin she is here for her uncle.

"He is 38 years old and has worked at QPP for 18 years. He is suffering from this disease. He goes to Mayo Clinic, but I have not seen any improvement in his health."

QPP worker Roberto Olmedo-Hernandez tells the Austin Daily Herald he is getting worse and his "kids are asking me if I'm going to die."

QPP CEO Kelly Wadding says the company is cooperating with workers, health officials and the news media.

But he doesn't mention food consumers.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

Martha Rosenberg

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