CHICAGO (Reuters) - Eleven workers who removed brains from slaughtered pigs at a plant in Minnesota have come down with a mysterious neurological condition, company and U.S. health officials said on Friday.
State and federal officials were working to find out if other workers at Quality Pork Processors Inc. in the city of Austin may be in danger.
“As far as we know, it is a rare condition,” said Dr. Daniel Lachance, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which tried to diagnose and treat the employees.
“To date, it has been seemingly restricted to this one workplace and not others of a similar nature, at least as much as I know right now from colleagues at the Minnesota Department of Health,” Lachance said in a telephone interview.
“The reason for all this is not at all clear.”
Kelly Wadding, president of Quality Pork, said he shut down the part of the plant where the employees worked.
“There is one area where we were harvesting tissue with compressed air blowing brains out of the cavity. It was a nasty looking place,” he said in a telephone interview.
“I just said we would stop it for the time being until we could get further information.”
Wadding said the Occupational Safety & Health Administration had sent officials to inspect the plant.
“They are looking at it. What they seem to want to do is basically work in concert with the health department,” he said. “We’ve got the best people in the world working on this.”
Hormel Foods Corp. is Quality Pork’s sole customer. The factory processes 17,000 hogs per day and employs more than 1,200 people.
Julie Craven, a spokeswoman for Hormel, said she did not believe the company’s products were affected.
“What we can tell from the food experts is, it is not a food safety issue. What we are trying to determine is what exactly is it,” Craven said. “It has got nothing to do with food safety.”
Lachance said any number of things could cause neurological damage to the workers, including chemicals used to process the pork products or even a virus.
“There is a fair amount going into figuring this out (including) where the workers are located,” he said.
The symptoms are vague.
“Patients feel a generalized illness and tiredness. They have a sense of fatigue or weakness in their legs,” Lachance said. “It hasn’t really progressed to a severe form of weakness. Most of it is relatively mild to moderate severity.”
Writing by Maggie Fox; Editing by John O'Callaghan