Bacon And EEGs

Following on yesterday’s post, here’s a story about another gruesome malady: it turns out that meat-processing workers in Minnesota are developing a strange neurological illness as a result of being splattered with atomized hog brains.

When pigs are slaughtered, little goes to waste. Snout, entrails, eyes, ears, lips, tendons, bones, skin — you name it, somebody wants it, and the workers in a modern abbatoir bring an impressive array of sophisticated techniques and high-tech equipment to the task. (If you’re interested, or if you’re at a loss for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift, have a look at the Jarvis Products Corporation’s “Pork Line”, which features an outstanding selection of spinal cord removers, bung pullers, jowl slicers, toe web cutters, hydraulic 3-D head droppers, and my favorite: the awesome JKC-1 Automatic Hog Splitter.)

So what happens to a hog’s brain on his last day? Well, thanks to an article in today’s Times, we can get a closer look. The story takes us to Austin, Minnesota:

Austin’s biggest employer is Hormel Foods, maker of Spam, bacon and other processed meats (Austin even has a Spam museum). Quality Pork Processors, which backs onto the Hormel property, kills and butchers 19,000 hogs a day and sends most of them to Hormel. The complex, emitting clouds of steam and a distinctive scent, is easy to find from just about anywhere in town.

Apparently, workers at the plant had been getting sick. Company nurses and local doctors were baffled. Finally, the authorities took notice.

Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, toured the plant. She and the owner, Kelly Wadding, paid special attention to the head table. Dr. Lynfield became transfixed by one procedure in particular, called “blowing brains.”

As each head reached the end of the table, a worker would insert a metal hose into the foramen magnum, the opening that the spinal cord passes through. High-pressure blasts of compressed air then turned the brain into a slurry that squirted out through the same hole in the skull, often spraying brain tissue around and splattering the hose operator in the process.

The brains were pooled, poured into 10-pound containers and shipped to be sold as food — mostly in China and Korea, where cooks stir-fry them, but also in some parts of the American South, where people like them scrambled up with eggs.

Yum! Well, that’s certainly food for thought. But what does it have to do with the malingering meatpackers? We read on:

The person blowing brains was separated from the other workers by a plexiglass shield that had enough space under it to allow the heads to ride through on a conveyor belt. There was also enough space for brain tissue to splatter nearby employees.

“You could see aerosolization of brain tissue,” Dr. Lynfield said.

The workers wore hard hats, gloves, lab coats and safety glasses, but many had bare arms, and none had masks or face shields to prevent swallowing or inhaling the mist of brain tissue.

Dr. Lynfield asked Mr. Wadding, “Kelly, what do you think is going on?”

The plant owner watched for a while and said, “Let’s stop harvesting brains.”

That’s mighty bad news for those refined palates in China, Korea, and the culturally elite American South. Why take such radical measures? What’s going on here?

Dr. Lynfield said the investigators had begun leaning toward a seemingly bizarre theory: that exposure to the hog brain itself might have touched off an intense reaction by the immune system, something akin to a giant, out-of-control allergic reaction. Some people might be more susceptible than others, perhaps because of their genetic makeup or their past exposures to animal tissue. The aerosolized brain matter might have been inhaled or swallowed, or might have entered through the eyes, the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth, or breaks in the skin.

Whatever it is, the effects are not pleasant: fatigue, pain, numbness, weakness in the legs, and tingling. Here’s one worker’s story:

Susan Kruse, who lives in Austin, was stunned by news reports about the outbreak in early December. Ms. Kruse, 37, worked at Quality Pork for 15 years. But for the past year, she has been too sick to work. She had no idea that anyone else from the plant was ill. Nor did she know that her illness might be related to her job.

Her most recent job was “backing heads,” scraping meat from between the vertebrae. Three people per shift did that task, and together would process 9,500 heads in eight or nine hours. Ms. Kruse (pronounced KROO-zee) stood next to the person who used compressed air to blow out the brains. She was often splattered, especially when trainees were learning to operate the air hose.

“I always had brains on my arms,” she said.

She never had trouble with her health until November 2006, when she began having pains in her legs. By February 2007, she could not stand up long enough to do her job. She needed a walker to get around and was being treated at the Mayo Clinic.

Though the affliction does seem to be an autoimmune reaction, there are still many unanswered questions, including why signs of the disease only began to appear recently, even though they’ve been blowing brains in Austin for years.

You can read the Times article here.

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2 Comments

  1. Maybe there is justice after all.

    Posted February 7, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Dennis, you know better than that. Don’t get your hopes up.

    Posted February 8, 2008 at 12:38 am | Permalink