Early last year, a number of workers at a pork processing plant in Austin, Minn., began reporting similar symptoms: weakness, fatigue, "heavy legs," pain, and sensory disturbance. When doctors and state health officials investigated, it became clear that all the affected workers had been stationed in or near a portion of the plant where hog brains were liquefied using blasts of compressed air. Wait, does that mean it's time for the Explainer to stop eating pork brains?
No, but inhaling them would be a bad idea. After months of study, it now seems fairly certain that breathing aerosolized hog brain tissue triggers an immune response in the human body that is responsible for these workers' ailments. But there is no evidence thus far that eating pork or even pork brains will trigger the illness. In a press conference Wednesday at the annual convention of the American Academy of Neurology, doctors stressed that "there is no indication that this is a food-borne illness," nor any indication that it can be passed from person to person.
At the same time, the investigation is preliminary, and scientists have yet to identify the specific agent that is making workers sick. And, anyway, given that a single serving of pork brains in gravy contains a heady 3,500 milligrams of cholesterol—or 1,170 percent of the government's recommended daily intake—it might be best to go easy on the brains.
Bonus Explainer: Does anyone actually eat pork brains? You bet. They are a stir-fry staple in China and Korea, and while they may not make it onto the menu of your local bistro, Rose brand pork brains are commonly seen in Southern supermarkets in the United States. Longtime North Carolina Congressman Howard Coble once offered up a recipe for pork brains and eggs for a congressional cookbook.
Food companies in the United States may need to come up with a new way to extract their product, however. The compressed-air method—which has been around since the 1990s—seems doomed. The Austin plant voluntarily stopped performing the procedure late last year. Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Agriculture have identified two other plants, one in Indiana and one in Nebraska, that also used the procedure; there, too, workers have shown the same symptoms. The officials are now trying to find out whether the compressed-air procedure is used abroad.
Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.
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