Quality Pork is the second biggest employer, with 1,300 employees. Most work eight-hour shifts along a conveyor belt — a disassembly line, basically — carving up a specific part of each carcass. Pay for these line jobs starts at about $11 to $12 an hour. The work is grueling, but the plant is exceptionally clean and the benefits are good, said Richard Morgan, president of the union local. Many of the workers are Hispanic immigrants. Quality Pork’s owner does not allow reporters to enter the plant.And, nothing prevented the workers from inhaling or swallowing this aerolized brain tissue.
A man whom doctors call the “index case” — the first patient they knew about — got sick in December 2006 and was hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic for about two weeks. His job at Quality Pork was to extract the brains from swine heads.
“He was quite ill and severely affected neurologically, with significant weakness in his legs and loss of function in the lower part of his body,” said Dr. Daniel H. Lachance, a neurologist at Mayo.
Tests showed that the man’s spinal cord was markedly inflamed. The cause seemed to be an autoimmune reaction: his immune system was mistakenly attacking his own nerves as if they were a foreign body or a germ. Doctors could not figure out why it had happened...
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.
On Nov. 28, Dr. DeVries’s boss, 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.”
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.