"Head Table" Workers At Pork Processing Plant Getting Sick.
Posted Oct 22 2008 4:38pm
Workers at Quality Pork Processors, Inc. in Minnesota are getting a rare disease called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), and many others are worried, says their union. There is an area on the slaughterhouse floor at Quality Pork that is known as the “head table,” where workers cut up pigs’ heads and shoot compressed air into the skulls to remove their brains, a noisy, smelly, bloody process that involves dismantling over 1,100 pigs’ heads an hour.
The relatively uncommon practice was suspended at Quality Pork because during a recent eight-month period, 11 head table workers developed numbness, tingling, or other neurological symptoms. Some scientists suspect inhaled brain matter—turned into mist when compressed—may have triggered the diseases or that workers may have come into contact with something dangerous and then touched their noses or mouths. Scientists are working to determine if there is something in the brain matter that could be causing the symptoms. The Minnesota Health Department says they are not ruling out other causes.
The company has harvested pork brains on and off for years, depending on demand, but it’s not known why workers began getting sick and it is unclear how many of the plant’s 1,300 employees worked at the head table. Safety glasses, helmets, gloves, and belly guards protected head-table workers; however, nothing protected their mouths or noses. Workers are now required to wear face shields and protective sleeves.
Five workers have been diagnosed with CIDP, a rare immune disorder that attacks the nerves and produces tingling, numbness, and weakness in the arms and legs, sometimes causing chronic damage. CIDP attacks the lining of the nerves, slowing or blocking the brain’s signals to the muscles; exactly what triggers the attack is unknown.
Using compressed air to remove hog brains is relatively uncommon because many plants don’t even them and those that do simply split the skulls open. Some of the biggest pork processors—Tyson Foods Inc., JBS Swift & Co., and Cargill Inc.—said they don’t handle brains because the market isn’t big enough; none of their workers have reported symptoms similar to those at Quality Pork.
State health officials said there is no evidence the public is at risk—either from those afflicted or from food leaving the plant, which supplies Hormel Foods Inc. The American Meat Institute said they are watching the situation very closely.
A survey of the workers confirmed what the plant’s nurses had suspected: those who got sick were employed at or near the “head table,” where workers cut the meat off severed hog heads.