Minnesota health officials investigate illnesses at Quality Pork Processors in Austin; No evidence to suggest general public or food supply at risk

Minnesota health officials investigate illnesses at Quality Pork Processors in Austin; No evidence to suggest general public or food supply at risk

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is investigating a cluster of 11 cases of neurological illness in workers at Quality Pork Processors, Inc. (QPP) in Austin, Minn.

QPP staff and physicians in the Austin and Rochester area recently realized there had been a pattern of cases of neurological illnesses and they seemed to have a workplace in common. The first cases developed symptoms in December 2006 and the other cases developed symptoms over the following several months, up to July 2007. MDH was contacted about a month ago about this cluster of cases and immediately began reviewing clinical findings, interviewing workers for potential exposures and inspecting the plant. MDH learned last week of an additional affected person who was hospitalized.

QPP is cooperating fully with the investigation, which is still underway. The investigation includes interviewing affected and non-affected workers, reviewing clinical data, obtaining diagnostic samples and extensively reviewing potential exposures. To date, a specific cause has not been identified. Health officials are in Austin today to continue the investigation and brief employees, together with QPP officials.

The symptoms of the illness are recognized over several weeks to months and are characterized by muscle weakness and abnormal sensation. In some cases the muscle weakness has been severe. Two individuals were hospitalized; one had an extended stay, including rehabilitation. The illnesses appear to be an inflammatory neurological disease, and in five of the cases the diagnosis was consistent with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. All individuals have been released and are in various stages of recovery or rehabilitation. There have been no fatalities.

“All of the information we have to date indicates that the general public is not at increased risk for developing this type of illness,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Sanne Magnan. “Also, there is no evidence that the food supply has been affected.”

The eleven cases worked in an area where either swine heads or organs are processed. Thus far in the investigation, none of the cases had apparent associations outside of the workplace.

“This is a very unusual occurrence,” said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist for MDH. “We are working very hard together with QPP and many partners in public health, environmental health, medicine, veterinary medicine, agriculture, and the swine industry to determine the cause.”

QPP has implemented additional precautionary measures at the plant in conjunction with advice from MDH. MDH investigators are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and alerting colleagues in the rest of the country to determine if cases are being seen in workers in other pork processing plants around the United States.

MDH officials will provide updates as new information about these illnesses becomes available.

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