In December of 2006, several workers at Quality Pork Processors (QPP) in Austin, Minnesota, came down with a mysterious illness.
A little over a year later, 12 workers (6 males and 6 females) were ill. All had the same symptoms, which The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, identifies as chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP). CIDP normally occurs in one out of 125,000 people.
Quality Pork shares the facility with Hormel Foods, the owner. On the Quality Pork side, 1,300 employees slaughter the pigs at a rate of about 18,000 per day. On the Hormel side, 1,400 workers process the meat into bacon and other meat products. None of the Hormel workers are reported ill. According to the union representative, the plant is very clean, though Hormel has refused to allow reporters inside.
Eleven of the 12 sick employees worked in, or near, a section of the plant where pig brains are removed from the skulls using air pressure – a process that essentially liquefies the brains and splatters everyone in the vicinity. This area is known as the "head table", and more than 1,100 skulls are processed every hour. The brains are then frozen and sold in the southern U.S. and Asia.
The workers wear safety glasses, helmets, gloves and chest protectors, but nothing over their noses and mouths. The brain-extraction practice, which began a decade ago when the compressors were originally installed, has since been suspended, and workers now wear face masks. The most recent case of CIDP, however, involved a worker from the basement, where rendering (of brains and other flesh) occurs and no compressors are used.
Two workers in an Indiana facility are also ill, but Indiana health officials have refused to discuss the issue, citing patient privacy laws. The Austin plant, and two other plants (Indiana and Nebraska ) are reportedly the only ones in the U.S. using compressed air to remove brains.
Minnesota State health officials have identified two probable causes. Either the aerosolized brain tissue set up an autoimmune response, triggering CIDP, or an infectious agent was present in the brain tissue. They have so far ruled out toxins and viruses because none of the workers, who are primarily Hispanic immigrants, displayed infectious disease symptoms (fever, chills and malaise) before the onset of the illness. However, extensive viral and bacterial testing continues. The officials have stated their intention to broaden the investigation to include former QPP workers going back as far as 1997 in an effort to determine how far the illness has spread. This may be difficult, as the turnover at the plant is very high, even though workers make about $12 an hour with benefits.
Unlike Multiple Sclerosis, CIDP affects the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms include progressive weakness and impaired sensation in the legs and arms. CIDP has been linked to the swine flu vaccine given to about 40 million Americans in 1976, which subsequently triggered Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a close relative of CIDP. CIDP is closely related to sporadic inclusion body myositis (sIBM). These two diseases (chronic, immune-mediated neuropathies) consistently show higher blood sedimentation rates, more cerebrospinal fluid proteins, and increased levels of prion proteins in muscle tissue. Sedimentation-rate tests, used to diagnose CIDP and sIBM, merely indicate the level of inflammation in the body. Prions themselves are invisible, even under an electron microscope, but they leave a telltale streak on processed film when treated with a gel to isolate them. Prions, also called PRP proteins, are improperly folded protein molecules which cannot be destroyed by chemicals, boiling, freezing, incineration or radiation. Prions can transform normal protein molecules in the brain and other body tissues into copies of themselves on contact. Nothing is known to reverse this process.
Prions are associated with mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalitis, or BSE). The human form of this disease is called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). A 2004 case of an individual with both sIBM and CJD, which often occur in conjunction, showed this increased level of prions in muscle tissue using the method described above. Researchers speculate that BSE (and CJD) may be also be associated with animal growth hormones, particularly those used to promote milk production. Some even speculate that immune-mediated neuropathies may be transmitted through hydrolized animal proteins used as a base for cosmetics.
Animals given growth hormones need more protein-dense feed, and their feed is supplemented with animal protein (i.e., ground-up cows and horses). In 1997, to halt the spread of BSE, the Food and Drug Administration forbade the use of animal protein in cattle feed; it excluded pig and chicken feed because those two species were not known carriers of BSE. Ridley, an animal feed producer headquartered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, makes feed and animal health products at 41 plants in the U.S. and Canada under the names Feed-Rite and Hubbard Feeds. In 2006, Ridley was sued for using possibly BSE-infected "downer cows" (cows too ill to stand on their own) in its feed. Ridley is suspected of causing the 2003 BSE outbreak in Canada.
As early as 1978, Dr. Masuo Doi, a veterinarian with the Food Safety and Quality Service, observed signs of a mysterious central nervous system disorder in some young hogs that had arrived at the Tobin Packing Plant in Albany, N.Y., from several Midwestern states. Doi suspected transmissible spongiform encephalapathy, or TSE, a relative of BSE. Two epidemiological studies (1973 and 1989, the American Journal of Epidemiology) have isolated pork as a likely risk factor factor in CJD.
The USDA has so far ignored the mounting evidence, and continues to allow animal protein in pig feed. Purina, a well-known maker of pet and animal feed, uses 21 percent animal protein in its piglet feed. This piglet food also contains amino acids. Amino acids "translate" nucleic acids, which decide the specific structure of the proteins inside of our bodies and have long been suspected as carriers of BSE/CJD.
Minnesota health officials have reassured the public that there is no danger, either from the sick employees themselves or from the meat. The MDH has also issued a FAQ sheet for concerned consumers. The American Meat Institute has not commented, but is reportedly tracking the issue carefully. As should we all, particularly if we are carnivores.
Meat itself is not the problem. The problem is the way meat supplies like pork, chicken and beef are developed, often in crowded, dirty enclosures which facilitate the spread of disease, using antibiotics, hormones and additives which are not native to these species in their natural environments. Pigs do not normally eat cows, nor do chickens. Cows do not eat other cows, just as people don’t normally eat other people, and when they do, kuru (a form of BSE endemic to the Papua, New Guinea tribe of Fore people, who are cannibals) is the inevitable result.
Ancient cultural taboos against practices like cannibalism and incest exist not because these practices are morally wrong (though they are that, too), but because their negative effects on human populations have been observed by our ancestors since time immemorial. Yet we in the 21st century ignore this knowledge and persist in cross-species feeding in the belief that our science will save us.
As I write this, the USDA has just issued a recall of 143 million pounds of California beef, the largest in U.S. history.
Disclosure: I don’t own Hormel stock.