If you have to come down with a strange disease, Austin, Minnesota, a town of 23,000 on the wide-open prairie is a pretty good place to be. The Mayo Clinic, famous for diagnosing exotic ailments, owns the local medical center and shares some staff with it. Mayo itself is just 40 miles east in Rochester. And when it comes to investigating mysterious outbreaks, Minnesota has one of the strongest health departments and best-equipped laboratories in the country.
When some workers at the Quality Pork Processors plant, which kills and butchers 19,000 hogs a day, developed neurological problems, health officials were called in.
And the disease that confronted doctors at the Austin Medical Center last fall was strange indeed. Three patients had the same highly unusual set of symptoms: fatigue, pain, weakness, numbness and tingling in the legs and feet.
The patients had something else in common, too: all worked at QPP.
“We put our heads together and said, ‘Something is out of sorts,’ ” said Carole Bower, the department head.
Austin’s biggest employer is Hormel Foods, maker of Spam, bacon and other processed meats (Austin even has a Spam museum). QPP, which backs onto the Hormel property, sends most of its butchered hogs to Hormel. The complex, emitting clouds of steam and a distinctive scent, is easy to find from just about anywhere in town.
Quality Pork is the second biggest employer in the area, 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. Many of the workers are Hispanic immigrants. Quality Pork’s owner does not allow reporters to enter the plant.
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. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, toured the plant. She 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.
As a result, 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.
“That’s the beauty and the beast of the immune system,” Dr. Osterholm at the medical center said. “It’s so efficient at keeping foreign objects away, but anytime there’s a close match it turns against us, too.” Pigs are a lot like people.
“I don’t know that we will have the definitive answer. I suspect we will be able to rule some things out, and will have a sense of whether it seems like it may be due to an autoimmune response. I think we’ll learn a lot, but it may take us a while. It’s a great detective story.”