Brain Mist Disease

The bad news just doesn’t end for the hog industry.

It was just recovering from Hurricane Floyd which flushed 120 million gallons of its liquid manure into floodwaters and drowned 20,000 hogs in their cages, when New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff went undercover at the Smithfield Packing Co. slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, NC.

Even as readers digested LeDuff’s behind the scenes images of black women “assigned to the chitterlings room, where they would scrape feces and worms from intestines” and workers throwing “a piece of shoulder at a friend across the conveyor” just to get his attention, the Chicago Tribune took up the baton.

“The odor knocks visitors off balance the moment they walk in the battered front door,” wrote Andrew Martin of HKY Farm in Bloomfield, NE. “It’s not so much a barnyard smell as a noxious combination of manure, ammonia and death that intensifies as one moves toward the barns. Next comes the sound of dozens of sows screaming and thrashing at their cages.”

Then Rolling Stone joined in with an article called Boss Hog that added a photo of a pyramid of dead, discarded hogs reminiscent of the Floyd decimation to the mix and the fact that at least eight people have drowned in manure lagoons.

And there’s more bad news for the hog industry.

Increasingly, people don’t want a property with a lakeview when that lake is excrement.

Alabamans are fighting an industry backed Senate bill that would protect mega farms from lawsuits. And neighbors of a high profile 52,800 hog facility planned near Yuma, AZ co-owned by Hormel have succeeded in stalling development, maybe permanently. (“12 football field-sized concrete pits lay idle,” notes Feedstuffs, the agribusiness weekly.)

Indians on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, SD regret the 24 metal-roofed hog barns Sun Prairie built nine years ago saying the ammonia makes them cough until their ribs hurt and that animals are packed so tightly in pens that “strong hogs begin to cannibalize the weak, eating off tails and ears.”

And now there’s a hog-to-humans disease.

It’s hard to write a story about the 13 workers at the Quality Pork Processing slaughterhouse in Austin, MN who came down with a strange neurological disease in December without mentioning the Table.

The head table is the station where compressed air is shot into the hog’s head cavity with a hose to “blow its brains” out through the base of the skull or the snout. A Plexiglas shield protects the hose operator from blowback but not other table workers who have “exposed arms” and no “face shields to prevent them from swallowing or inhaling sprayed brain tissue,” say news reports.

The pulverized brains are “then collected and poured into containers to be shipped to China, Korea, and even parts of the United States, where cooks like to stir fry them and some people like to add them to their scrambled eggs.”

Even as the 13 workers experiencing heavy legs, weakness, pain and numbness were sent to the Mayo Clinic, three more head table workers came down with the disease– this time from Indiana Packers Corporation in Delphi, IN.

And this month, a worker at a Hormel plant in Fremont, NE became ill. Guess where the employee worked?

Of course there’s plenty of spin with the story.

How Mayo doctors identified a Brand New Disease quickly named Progressive Inflammatory Neuropathy (PIN) instead of another grotesquerie of factory farming. And how the workers are fine and the pigs, meat and even brains safe if you just don’t inhale the latter.

“It’s an exposure issue, it’s not a contagious disease,” assures Nebraska’s chief medical officer Dr. Joanne Schaefer.

But others say not so fast.

“Several people diagnosed locally with PIN said their symptoms were so severe that they awoke unable to move; had to use wheelchairs; or lost sensation in their arms, legs, feet or hands,” writes the Post-Bulletin’s Jeff Hansel. “Although steroid and other treatments have helped, the term ‘recovered’ can’t be used because they continue to experience the effects of spine and nerve inflammation.”

“I got to the point where my son would put my walker in front of me, and he’d hold down on the walker so I could use that to pull myself out of the chair,” says Susan Kruse, 37, who worked for 15 years at Quality Pork Processors in Austin.

In his whistle blowing article in Rolling Stone Jeff Tietz observes that, “the immobility, poisonous air and terror of confinement badly damage the pigs’ immune systems” so that diseases, “once established in one pig, will rush spritelike through the whole population.”

Maybe that should read “populations.”

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at





Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).