Minnesota Pork Plant Workers Afflicted With Mysterious Illness

An inexplicable neurological illness has afflicted 11 workers from a pork processing plant in Austin, Minn., prompting state health officials to investigate the cause of the malady.

The first signs of illnesses in workers at Quality Pork Processors surfaced in December 2006, and other workers developed symptoms over the following several months up to July 2007.

According to officials from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), the workers experienced muscle weakness and numbness as well as an “abnormal sensation” in their muscles and legs.

Two of the workers were temporarily hospitalized. While some of the workers have recovered completely, others are currently going through rehabilitation, said Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan. She also said that an investigation into the cause of the illness is still underway.

The illnesses appear to be an inflammatory neurological disease, the department said, and in five of the cases, the diagnosis was consistent with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, which is “characterized by progressive weakness and impaired sensory function in the legs and arms,” according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

No Other Employees From Plant Affected

The 11 affected workers were toiling in areas where either swine heads or organs are processed. None of the plant’s other 1,300 workers reported to have fallen ill with similar symptoms.

Health officials have dubbed the illnesses as “unusual.”

“This is a very unusual occurrence,” said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist for MDH. “We are working very hard together with QPP and many partners in public health, environmental health, medicine, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and the swine industry to determine the cause.”

According to officials, QPP is cooperating fully with the investigation. OccupationalHazards.com spoke with the company’s owner and CEO Kelly Wadding, who said they were taking precautionary measures to make sure that no one else falls ill.

Face masks have been issued for workers to wear and the company no longer uses a method called “air pressurized removal” to remove brain tissue from the animals, Wadding said. He assured that the general public is not at risk and the food distributed by the plant has not been affected.

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