The Frontal Cortex

Don’t Inhale Pig Brains

Apparently, if you breathe in vaporized bits of swine cortex you have a decent chance of getting very sick. That, at least, is the tenuous conclusion of a doctors in Minnesota:

The ailment is characterized by sensations of burning, numbness and weakness in the arms and legs. For most, this is unpleasant but not disabling. For a few, however, the ailment has made walking difficult and work impossible. The symptoms have slowly lessened in severity, but in none of the sufferers has it disappeared completely.

While the illness is similar to some known conditions, it does not match any exactly. Nor is the leading theory of its cause something medical researchers have studied. That is because the illness appears to be caused by inhaling microscopic flecks of pig brain.

“This appears to be something new,” Minnesota’s state epidemiologist, Ruth Lynfield, said last week.

The packing house, in Austin, Minn. (pop. 23,000), slaughters 1,900 pigs a day, working two meat-cutting shifts and one clean-up shift. Virtually everything is used, including ears, entrails and bone. The 12 sufferers of the neurological illness — most are Hispanic immigrants — all work at or near the “head table” where the animals’ severed heads are processed.

One of the steps in that part of the operation involves removing the pigs’ brains with compressed air forced into the skull through the hole where the spinal cord enters. The brains are then packed and sent to markets in Korea and China as food.

Investigators say there is no reason to suspect that either the brains or the pork cuts were contaminated. Their working hypothesis is that the harvesting technique — known as “blowing brains” on the floor — produces aerosols of brain matter. Once inhaled, the material prompts the immune system to produce antibodies that attack the pig brain compounds, but apparently also attack the body’s own nerve tissue because it is so similar.

Yet another reason to avoid factory farms.

Thanks for the tip Steve!

Comments

  1. #1 Rachael
    February 4, 2008

    This is very interesting. My husband is an industrial hygeneist and spends much of his day interested in these types of problems. He suggested that it could be the forced air which is contaminated – some kind grease, expellant or solvent leaking into the air compressor which could cause CNS effects like this.

    After reading this, I immediately thought of prions. Scientists are only beginning to understand how prion diseases occur, and it is quite possible that other diseases we don’t understand could be caused by consuming prions. Take Alzheimers for example. I don’t doubt that Alzheimers exists as its own disease, but consider for a moment that we readily diagnose people with Alzheimers but rarely do autopsies. Then consider that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease presents many similar symptoms to Alzheimers. When you start reading about why a CJD diagnosis would be made versus Alzheimers or dementia, you find out that CJD diagnosis’ are only made in countries with a history of mad cow. Yet the FDA tests a very, very small portion of our cattle, so it is possible that mad cow is more prevalent than our meat suppliers would like us to believe. Take all of that together and you start wondering if some of the Alzheimer’s diagnosis’ could in fact be improperly diagnosed prion diseases. These peripheral nervous system symptoms don’t match up with any prion disease that I’ve heard of, but it does make me wonder how little we know about it all.

    I know this all sounds conspiracy-ish, but it’s yet one more reason I won’t eat beef and avoid all factory farmed meat.

  2. #2 Rachael
    February 4, 2008

    I just realized I used CNS and peripheral nervous system interchangeably. I guess the symptoms were peripheral but could it have been caused by a CNS deficit? I dunno. Anyway, just wanted to clarify.

  3. #3 Epistaxis
    February 4, 2008

    Yet another reason to avoid factory farms.

    Or, if you really want to be safe, another reason not to put pieces of other animals into your body at all.

  4. #4 yoshi
    February 4, 2008

    The brains are then packed and sent to markets in Korea and China as food.

    I’m rather impressed we found something we can produce in the US and export to other countries.

    (bacon was a part of a balanced breakfast for me this morning and it will be again tomorrow)

  5. #5 Dave Briggs
    February 4, 2008

    Their working hypothesis is that the harvesting technique — known as “blowing brains” on the floor — produces aerosols of brain matter. Once inhaled, the material prompts the immune system to produce antibodies that attack the pig brain compounds, but apparently also attack the body’s own nerve tissue because it is so similar.

    Thanks for the heads up! At first reading the post I was thinking maybe mad cow? I also know that wild boar hunters are warned that when they first open up a hog to field dress it that they need to hold their breath since there is some bacterial or viral contaminant they can catch when the abdomen is first opened.
    The above hypothesis sounds feasible since pigs must be genetically close to humans, their parts are used in us medically. I wonder if they will come up with some way to remove the aerosols from the humans to see if that does it?
    Dave Briggs :~)

  6. #6 locus
    February 4, 2008

    Rachel:

    You’re right about the FDA not testing many cows–mostly because cattle production/slaughterhouses are regulated by the USDA.

    However, the FDA has instituted a number of new regulations over the last few years that in theory make us safer. They prohibited the use of Specified Risk Materials (mostly nervous tissue most likely to contain prions), banned certain animal proteins from cattle feed, and required recordkeeping/traceback systems to beef production.

    As far as USDA testing goes, they do test a relatively small sample of the cattle used domestically. The testing system is done through sampling, but the ratios of tests/head of cattle aren’t that impressive. Other nationalities test everything (see Japan). More disturbing are the efforts to block small producers from testing all their cattle and making BSE-free claims.

  7. #7 Rachael
    February 5, 2008

    Locus,

    Woops, I meant the USDA. I was in a rush when I typed my comment…

    >They prohibited the use of Specified Risk Materials (mostly nervous tissue most likely to contain prions), banned certain animal proteins from cattle feed, and required recordkeeping/traceback systems to beef production.

    What disturbs me about this attitude is that it requires a great deal of confidence in our scientific knowledge of prions – ie, we’re assuming that by eliminating the “riskiest” tissues we are eliminating the problem. Banning “certain animal proteins” and the like are all great steps to be taking – but what would really ensure that our food supply is safe would be routine testing of all cattle, something that the USDA (*cough* lobbyist organizations) is vehemently opposed to.

    Note that in the US we readily diagnose “spontaneous” CJD but rarely diagnoses “variant” CJD (variant CJD is attributed to eating BSE infected meat, while spontaneous is, uh somehow, spontaneous).

    Here’s another aspect of all of this to consider: you can’t feed cows to cows, but you can feed cows to pigs and then feed pigs to cows. How’s that for food safety logic?

    >More disturbing are the efforts to block small producers from testing all their cattle and making BSE-free claims.

    I assume you’re referencing Creekstone farms here. The USDA appeal in 2007 disgusts me. Whose interests are they serving? Ugh.

    Anyway, I very much agree. In my mind, everything that is wrong with factory farming boils down to the fact that small producers simply cannot compete. Whether they’re trying to improve animal welfare or food safety, big beef has interest in suppressing the ability of small producers to provide consumers with choice. Given a true choice (and transparency in farming practices), I think many consumers would choose to pay a higher price for healthier, safer and more humanely raised meat. But because most beef arrives in nicely packaged plastic containers with practically no identity other than the cut, consumers perceive all beef to be the same. Factory farming aims to reduce consumer choice.

    The person who owned the building that my husband works in actually died from variant CJD several years back. He lived his whole life in the US, ate every single meal in the US… except for one dinner, one piece of beef that he ate while in Italy at his daughter’s wedding. He died from CJD and the official ruling stated that he contracted it from that single piece of beef in Italy. I mean, really, what are the odds?

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