Epidemiologic Investigation of Immune-Mediated
Polyradiculoneuropathy among Abattoir Workers
Exposed to Porcine Brain
Stacy M. Holzbauer1,2, Aaron S. DeVries1*, James J. Sejvar3, Christine H. Lees1, Jennifer Adjemian2,
Jennifer H. McQuiston3, Carlota Medus1, Catherine A. Lexau1, Julie R. Harris2, Sergio E. Recuenco3,
Ermias D. Belay3, James F. Howell4, Bryan F. Buss2,5, Mady Hornig6, John D. Gibbins2,7, Scott E. Brueck7,
Kirk E. Smith1, Richard N. Danila1, W. Ian Lipkin6, Daniel H. Lachance8, P. James. B. Dyck8, Ruth Lynfield1
1Infectious Disease, Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, Minnesota Department of Health, Saint Paul, Minnesota, United States of America, 2Epidemic
Intelligence Service, Office of Workforce and Career Development, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America, 3Division of
Viral and Rickettsial Diseases, National Center for Zoonotic, Vector-borne and Enteric Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, United States
of America, 4Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response, Indiana State Department of Health, Indianapolis, Indiana, United States of America, 5Division of
Public Health, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Lincoln, Nebraska, United States of America, 6Center for Infection and Immunity, Columbia University,
New York, New York, United States of America, 7Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations, and Field Studies, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,
Cincinnati, Ohio, United States of America, 8Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, United States of America
Background: In October 2007, a cluster of patients experiencing a novel polyradiculoneuropathy was identified at a pork
abattoir (Plant A). Patients worked in the primary carcass processing area (warm room); the majority processed severed
heads (head-table). An investigation was initiated to determine risk factors for illness.
Methods and Results: Symptoms of the reported patients were unlike previously described occupational associated
illnesses. A case-control study was conducted at Plant A. A case was defined as evidence of symptoms of peripheral
neuropathy and compatible electrodiagnostic testing in a pork abattoir worker. Two control groups were used - randomly
selected non-ill warm-room workers (n=49), and all non-ill head-table workers (n=56). Consenting cases and controls were
interviewed and blood and throat swabs were collected. The 26 largest U.S. pork abattoirs were surveyed to identify
additional cases. Fifteen cases were identified at Plant A; illness onsets occurred during May 2004–November 2007. Median
age was 32 years (range, 21–55 years). Cases were more likely than warm-room controls to have ever worked at the head-
table (adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 6.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.6–26.7), removed brains or removed muscle from the
backs of heads (AOR, 10.3; 95% CI, 1.5–68.5), and worked within 0–10 feet of the brain removal operation (AOR, 9.9; 95% CI,
1.2–80.0). Associations remained when comparing head-table cases and head-table controls. Workers removed brains by
using compressed air that liquefied brain and generated aerosolized droplets, exposing themselves and nearby workers.
Eight additional cases were identified in the only two other abattoirs using this technique. The three abattoirs that used this
technique have stopped brain removal, and no new cases have been reported after 24 months of follow up. Cases
compared to controls had higher median interferon-gamma (IFNc) levels (21.7 pg/ml; vs 14.8 pg/ml, P,0.001).
Discussion: This novel polyradiculoneuropathy was associated with removing porcine brains with compressed air. An
autoimmune mechanism is supported by higher levels of IFNc in cases than in controls consistent with other immune
mediated illnesses occurring in association with neural tissue exposure. Abattoirs should not use compressed air to remove
brains and should avoid procedures that aerosolize CNS tissue. This outbreak highlights the potential for respiratory or
mucosal exposure to cause an immune-mediated illness in an occupational setting.
Citation: Holzbauer SM, DeVries AS, Sejvar JJ, Lees CH, Adjemian J, et al. (2010) Epidemiologic Investigation of Immune-Mediated Polyradiculoneuropathy
among Abattoir Workers Exposed to Porcine Brain. PLoS ONE 5(3): e9782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009782
Editor: Jos H. Verbeek, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Finland
Received October 21, 2009; Accepted March 1, 2010; Published March 19, 2010
Copyright: ? 2010 Holzbauer et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: Laboratory work performed by W.I. Lipkin and M. Hornig at the Columbia University Northeast Biodefense Center was funded by the National Institutes
of Health award U54AI5758. Epidemiologic investigation was supported by the Emerging Infections Program Grant CFDA Number 93-283 Grant #5U01CI000313.
The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: Aaron.DeVries@state.mn.us
In October 2007, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH)
was notified of 10 patients experiencing unusual neurologic illness
who worked at a swine abattoir (Plant A) in southeastern
Minnesota. It was reported that patients experienced significant
sensory symptoms including numbness and tingling as well as limb
weakness consistent with polyradiculoneuropathy, and was initially
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referred to as progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN) now
described as sensory predominant, immune-mediated polyradicu-
loneuropathy (IP). Among those that had been evaluated in a
health care setting, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) protein was elevated
in the absence of pleocytosis and several had evidence of spinal
nerve root or spinal cord inflammation on Magnetic Resonance
Imaging (MRI). The illness appeared to be associated with
working in plant A and was unlike previously described
occupational associated illnesses.
Plant A employed 1,300 workers and slaughters .19,000 hogs
per day. The patients worked in the warm-room, the area where
hogs are eviscerated and initially processed. Seven patients worked
at the head-table, the area within the warm-room where skin,
skeletal muscle, and brain are removed from severed swine heads.
Two shifts, each employing 200 workers, operate in the warm-
room, with 35–40 workers at the head-table during each shift.
Considering the unusual nature of the illness and apparent
clustering, a public health response and epidemiologic investiga-
tion was initiated.
Initial Case Assessment and Occupational Investigation
The public health investigation was conducted by the MDH
under the authority provided under Minnesota Statute 144.05
and State Rule 4605.7050. As such, this investigation was
considered to be a public health response and Institutional Review
Board review and approval was not required. We reviewed all
available medical records for reported Minnesota patients. A site
visit of Plant A was conducted and work practices, slaughtering
techniques, and safety equipment were examined. We reviewed
material safety data sheets regarding all chemicals used, ventilation
blueprints, and maintenance records. We reviewed occupational
health and Workers’ Compensation records to supplement case-
finding. Potential cases were interviewed using a detailed standard
questionnaire assessing neurologic and infectious symptoms within
the past 12 months, work history, known risk factors for
inflammatory neuropathies, personal health history, family history,
and potential exposures.
On the basis of initial medical record findings and interview
data, a stratified case definition, including epidemiologic, clinical,
and diagnostic criteria, was developed (Figure 1). The purpose
of the development of this case definition was to identify risk
factors associated with illness. Multiple symptoms, signs, and
clinical diagnostic data were common to the first 10 reported
cases. Components of the case definition were selected from these
cases, emphasizing quantitative signs that were the most objective
and reproducible (weakness and decreased reflexes) and diagnostic
tests that were available to most clinicians (CSF evaluation,
neuroimaging including CT scan or MRI, and electrodiagnostic
testing). Reported new pain and numbness were judged to be
supportive of the syndrome but were not included in the case
Additional Case Finding
We conducted additional case-finding efforts at the local,
regional, national, and international levels, using a multi-faceted
approach. International classification of disease (ICD)-9 code
searches for acute (357.0) and chronic inflammatory polyneurop-
athy (357.81), and idiopathic progressive polyneuritis (356.4)
covering January 1, 2002 to November 30, 2007 were performed
at area hospitals. Medical records were reviewed for work history
and clinical-case criteria. Lists of all persons undergoing
electrodiagnostic tests (nerve conduction studies or electromyog-
raphy) from 1997 through 2007 were cross-matched with a list of
all Plant A workers employed during the same period. MDH
issued health alerts and press releases requesting reports of
potential cases. Neurologists near regional U.S. pork-processing
abattoirs were contacted directly. Active case finding continued
through December 2009 via regular contact with onsite Plant A
medical staff and neurologists in the community.
Domestic animal health agencies at both the state and federal
level were contacted to assist in the investigation. All 26 U.S.
federally inspected swine abattoirs with .500 employees were
initially surveyed to identify abattoirs with similar brain removal
techniques. Site visits were conducted at those abattoirs with
similar techniques; occupational health and medical records were
reviewed; and local primary-care physicians and regional
neurologists were queried. Suspect cases, former employees, and
head-table workers were interviewed by using a questionnaire
modified from the Minnesota case-control study form. The World
Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) was contacted to identify
member countries using the similar techniques. Additional case
reports were sought nationally through postings on the American
Academy of Neurology and the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention Epi-X websites, and Emerging Infections Network
electronic mailings. International contacts were made also to the
Health Canada, the World Health Organization (WHO), and
United States-Mexico Border Health Commission (USMBHC) to
seek additional case reports.
A case-control study was conducted at Plant A from December
4–11, 2007. Confirmed and probable cases included all employed
workers with new onset of neurologic illness not explained by
another cause, and findings meeting clinical and diagnostic criteria
(Figure 1). Two unmatched control groups of employed Plant A
workers were used — a random sample of warm-room workers
(including head-table workers) and all head-table workers not
meeting the case definition. Among those who were randomly
identified, all provided written consent in their language of their
Figure 1. Case definition of immune-mediated polyradiculo-
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choice. All subjects were interviewed in English or Spanish based
on the subject’s language choice with an extensive, standard
questionnaire modified from the initial case questionnaire.
Controls reporting mild neurologic symptoms (e.g., numbness,
tingling, or weakness consistent with carpal tunnel entrapment
syndrome) within the past year, but not meeting the case definition
criteria, were excluded given the known higher prevalence of
repetitive motion associated neurologic symptoms among workers
in similar occupations.
Univariate and multivariate analyses were conducted to identify
predefined potential risk factors included in the standardized
questionnaire. Statistical analysis was completed with SAS
software, version 9.1 (SAS, Cary, NC). Univariate analysis was
performed with X2tests (two-tailed) or Wilcoxon-Mann Whitney
tests. Statistically significant variables (P,0.05) by univariate
analysis were entered into multivariate logistic regression models,
along with sex and age.
Sera and throat specimens were collected from all consenting
cases and controls. Cases and controls could consent to the
collection of sera and throat independently. Throat swabs were
pooled into 24 aliquots and plated in embryonated chicken eggs
and on 10 viral culture cell lines: BT (bovine turbinate), PK15
[porcine kidney (ATCCH Number: CCL-33TM)], BHK (baby
hamster kidney), PPK (primary porcine kidney), MDCK (Madine-
Darby canine kidney), CRFK (Crandell-Reese feline kidney),
PAM (porcine alveolar macrophages), MARC-145 (monkey
kidney), and Vero (monkey kidney). All supernatants were tested
for hemagglutination and examined by transmission electron
microscopy for viral elements. Indirect immunofluorescence was
performed for encephalomyocarditis virus, hepatitis E virus
(HEV), transmissible gastroenteritis virus, porcine adenovirus,
porcine rotavirus, porcine reovirus, swine influenza, porcine
teschovirus, porcine enterovirus A, pseudorabies virus, and
A second throat swab was inoculated on Campylobacter selective
media. As part of the case-control study, rectal swabs were not
requested because of concern that this would decrease the
participation rate. Isolation was performed on Campylobacter plates.
Among consenting cases with recent onset of symptoms stools
were collected and tested for pathogens as part of the Unexplained
Diarrhea Project, MDH employing 27 different pathogen specific
testing modalities including PCR, culture, and antigen detec-
tion. Additionally, broad range16S PCR was performed on
blood specimens from the four most recent cases using previously
Serum levels of cytokines and chemokines [tumor necrosis
factor a (TNFa), interferon c (IFNc), interleukin 1b (IL1b),
interleukin 2 (IL2), interleukin 4 (IL4), interleukin 6 (IL6),
interleukin 8 (IL8), interleukin 10 (IL10), interleukin 12p40
(IL12p40), monocyte chemotactic protein 1 (MCP1), IFNc-
inducible protein 10 (IP10), Macrophage inflammatory protein
1b (MIP1b)] in 15 cases and 53 control samples from abattoirs
with cases were analyzed in triplicate using a multiplexed, bead-
based cytokine immunoassay (Upstate BeadlyteH human multi-
cytokine/chemokine kit, Millipore, St. Charles, Missouri) and the
Luminex100detection system (Luminex Corporation, Austin,
Texas), according to the manufacturer’s protocols. Data were
analyzed with StatView for Windows, version 5.0.1 (SAS Institute,
Cary, NC). Two-tailed nonparametric Mann-Whitney U tests
were employed for non-Gaussian distributions and X2tests were
used to analyze categorical data.
Cytokine and chemokine data from all subjects (ill exposed,
exposed non-ill, non-exposed non-ill) were additionally submitted
to a principal components analysis (PCA), an exploratory method
transforming an original set of variables into a smaller set of
uncorrelated variables (factors or components), and summarizing
most of the information of the original variables. Variables were
log transformed (log10[x + 1]) before PCA to reduce skewness.
Extracted components were rotated orthogonally and obliquely,
and component extraction was guided by the Kaiser criterion and
scree test. Items with loadings on components $0.4 were retained.
Additional criteria requiring significance for Bartlett’s test of
sphericity (P,0.05) and Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin statistic value .0.7
were applied. A three-factor, oblique solution best explained the
data. Two-tailed nonparametric Kruskal-Wallis (ill exposed vs.
exposed non-ill, vs. non-exposed, non-ill group comparisons) and
Mann-Whitney U tests (ill exposed vs. both subsets of controls)
were employed to compare factor scores, as distributions deviated
Case Finding and Case Characteristics
Fifteen confirmed IP cases were identified in Minnesota, all
were Plant A workers. All cases were identified by Plant A nursing
staff and the two reporting medical centers. Eleven cases presented
with symptoms in 2007, three in 2006, and one in 2004 (Figure 2).
Eight (53%) were female; median age was 34 years (range, 21–54
Figure 2. Minnesota, Indiana, and Nebraska immune-mediated polyradiculoneuropathy cases by month of illness onset and state.
IP Outbreak in Swine Abattoirs
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years); and 80% were Hispanic. Per Plant A management, age and
ethnicity of cases were similar to that in the abattoir as a whole;
however, the proportion of female cases (53%) was higher than
Plant A female workers overall (reported as 25%). Time of
employment of cases at Plant A ranged from 3 months to 21 years
(median, 13 months). All cases worked in the warm-room, and
nine worked at the head-table (Figure 3). All cases reported
working at or frequently visiting the head-table, or exposure to
brain material in Plant A.
All had no other evident alternative diagnosis to explain
symptoms following evaluation for various metabolic, inherited,
para- or post-infectious, or neoplastic neuropathies. All had
limb numbness, decreased strength, and hypo- or areflexia; 13
(87%) described ‘‘tingling’’ in the limbs. Fifteen (100%) had at least
one abnormality on electrodiagnostic testing consistent with
axonal or demyelinating peripheral neuropathic features in
affected limbs which could not be attributed to an underlying
chronic disease process. Of 11 patients with spinal cord magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI), 10 (91%) had nerve root enhancement
and one had longitudinal intramedullary gray matter swelling.
Eleven cases (73%) had CSF testing performed; the median CSF
protein was 155 mg/dL (range 75–231; normal, ,45 mg/dL) and
median CSF white blood cell count (WBC) was 2 cells/mm3(range
1–163; normal, ,5 cells/mm3). Thirteen (87%) patients were
tested for anti-nuclear antibody (ANA), and 9 (69%) were
abnormal with the median of 1.7 units (range 0.5 to 7.1 units,
(normal ,1.0). Serum protein electrophoresis (SPEP) was
performed in 10 with polyclonal hypergammaglobinemia in 4
(40%) and none with monogammaglobinema. Two cases were
hospitalized, with lengths of stay of 3 and 42 days. Additional
patients with neurologic symptoms including pure sensory features
without muscle weakness, reflex change, or electrophysiological
abnormalities required for our case definition were evaluated but
did not meet the case definition criteria for this epidemiologic
Active case finding and passive reporting from clinicians and the
public in Minnesota through December 2009 did not detect
additional cases. No additional cases were identified from Plant A
occupational or Workers’ Compensation records. No reports of
illness were received from other regional abattoirs. Fourteen of 15
cases were re-identified through one or more of the additional case
Figure 3. Schematic of warm-room processing area. Schematic represents the work stations onan assembly line within the warm-roomofPlant A
for the 13 cases that were able to be contacted. All cases reported working at or frequently visiting the head-table or exposure to brain tissue in Plant A.
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Thirteen of 15 cases were current or recent Plant A workers and
were able to be contacted; these workers were enrolled in the case-
control study. Multiple unsuccessful attempts were made to
contact the two additional cases. Controls included 49 warm-
room workers and 56 head-table workers after those experiencing
neurologic symptoms were excluded (four (8%) and three (5%)
from the two groups, respectively). In the univariate analysis
including warm-room controls (Table 1), cases were more likely
than controls to have ever worked at the head-table (odds ratio
[OR], 6.9; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.8–26.6), to have ever
removed skeletal muscle from the backs of swine heads, known
commonly as backing heads (OR, 10.4; 95% CI, 1.7–65.8), and to
have ever worked backing heads or removing brains (OR, 14.7;
Table 1. Univariate analysis and multivariate analysis of risk factors for immune-mediated polyradiculoneuropathy.
Univariate and Multivariate Analysis Using Warm-Room Controls
Potential risk factorCases Controls OR (95% CI)
AORb(95% CI)P valuea
Female, no. (%) 7 (54%)12 (24%)3.6 (0.9–15.5) 0.09 2.7 (0.6–13.0)0.19
Median 32270.23 0.37
Ever worked at head-table, no. (%)9 (69%) 12 (24%) 6.9 (1.8–26.6)0.0066.6 (1.6–26.7)0.008
cEver backed heads, no. (%)4 (31%)2 (4%) 10.4 (1.7–65.8)0.01 6.3 (0.8–47.1) 0.07
Ever Backed heads/Removed brains, no. (%) 5 (38%)2 (4%)14.7 (2.4–89.1)0.00310.3 (1.5–68.5)0.01
Median distance from brain operation, m (ft)5.8 (19.1)13.8 (45.2) 0.040.14
Median minimum distance from brain3.9 (12.9) 7.6 (24.8)0.010.07
operation, m (ft)
d#3.1 m (10 ft) from brain operation, no. (%)5 (38%)2 (5%)17.5 (2.5–122.5)0.004 9.9 (1.2–80.0)0.03
d3.2 to 6.1 m (11 to 20 ft) from brain operation,4 (29%)10 (25%) 2.8 (0.6–13.4)0.202.7 (0.5–13.4) 0.20
d$6.2 m (20 ft) from brain operation, no. (%)4 (29%) 28 (70%)Referent Referent
Total time at Plant A, months
Median 18.3 150.84
Univariate and Multivariate Analysis Using Head-Table Controls
Potential risk factorCases ControlsOR (95% CI)
AORb(95% CI)P valuea
Female, no. (%)4 (44%)13 (23%) 2.7 (0.5–13.9) 0.231.3 (0.19–8.8)0.80
cEver Backed heads, no. (%)4 (44%)6 (11%)6.7 (1.4–31.8)0.037.7 (1.1–53.0) 0.04
Ever Backed heads/Removed brains, no. (%)5 (56%)8 (14%) 7.5 (1.7–34.0)0.01 13.5 (1.9–96.2)0.009
Median distance from brain operation, feet 14.720.2 0.04 0.20
Median minimum distance from brain6.7 14.890.01 0.01
d#3.1 m (10 ft) from brain operation, no. (%)e
5 (56%)8 (15%) 7.2 (1.6–32.7)0.01 12.7 (1.8–91.4)0.007
d.3.1 m (10 ft) from brain operation, no. (%)e
4 (40%)46 (85%) Referent Referent
Total time at Plant A, months
Abbreviations: CI, confidence interval; OR, odds ratio; AOR, adjusted odds ratio
aP value of,0.05 was considered statistically significant. All probabilities are two-tailed.
bJob and work location variables were entered into separate multivariate logistic-regression models along with sex and age. Multivariate results for sex and age (OR,
95% CI and P values) taken from model that included work location.
cRemoving skeletal muscle from the back of hog heads.
dSome employees reported multiple job stations. Distance categories were created using the distance of the closest reported job station from the brain removal
eAll workers at the head-table were ,6.2 m (20 ft) from the brain removal operation, so only two distance categories were used.
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95% CI, 2.4–89.1). Only one case and no controls ever had the job
of removing brains, so this variable was combined with the
backing heads variable for analysis. When comparing cases who
worked at the head-table (n=9) with non-ill head-table-worker
controls (n=56), ever backing heads (OR, 6.7; 95% CI, 1.4–31.8)
and ever removing brains or backing heads (OR, 7.5; 95% CI,
1.7–34.0) were associated with illness (Table 1). Median ages for
head-table cases and controls were 37 and 29 years, respectively
(P=0.01). Prior vaccinations, medications, travel, work elsewhere,
time working at Plant A, and exposure to cleaning chemicals,
insecticides, pesticides or other animals were not associated with
illness using either control group.
Distance from the employee-reported job station to the brain-
removal operation was calculated. Some employees reported
multiple job stations. When we compared the distance of the
employee-reported job station closest to the brain-removal
operation, the distances were significantly different for cases to
warm-room controls. (Table 1). We separated minimum distance
measurements into three categorical variables (#3.1, 3.2–6.1, and
$6.2 m); cases were more likely than warm-room controls to have
worked #3.1 m from the brain-removal operation (OR, 17.5; 95%
CI, 2.5–122.5). A similar association was identified for head-table
cases, who more often worked within 0–3.1 m (versus 3.2–6.1 m)
of the brain-removal operation, compared with head-table
Colinearity of variables for minimum distance and specific job
precluded comparison in the multivariate model. However, in
separate models controlling for possible effects of age and sex, ever
having worked at the head-table, ever having backed heads or
removed brains, and having the closest job station located #3.1 m
from the brain-removal operation were each more common
among cases than warm-room controls (Table 1). Results were
similar when comparing cases and controls who only worked at
the head-table in multivariate models. Sex was not significantly
associated with illness, and older age was only associated in models
comparing head-table cases and controls.
Plant A processes hogs during two shifts, 5 or 6 days a week.
Workers apply for specific jobs on the basis of seniority and ability
and remain at those positions until successfully bidding for a new
position. Safety equipment was consistent with industry standards,
which does not include respiratory protection.
Plant A used approved chemicals and in approved concentra-
tions. Maintenance records were unremarkable. Plant A had
increased the line speed twice since 2003; from 1,200 to 1,300
hogs per hour in April 2003 and to 1,350 hogs per hour in 2006.
Inspection of Plant A revealed that since October 1998, a
compressed-air device was used to harvest brains from detached
heads (Figure 4). The immobile compressed-air device was located
at the last station of the head-table. It consisted of a stainless steel
tube connected to a compressed-air line mounted on a plastic
table, and welded to stainless steel plates. The operator placed the
swine head over the tube through the foramen magnum. This
action tripped a wire air trigger mechanism. The compressed-air,
pressurized to 90 psi, liquefied and extruded brain material
through the foramen magnum, creating splatter and aerosolized
droplets of brain tissue. The brain material was collected in a large
pail below the compressed-air device and transferred to another
area in the warm-room where the brains were packaged in 10
pound boxes for shipping. Residual brain material was observed
on the worker removing brains and on workers who backed heads
(the job closest to the brain removal operation) (Figure 4).
Plant A voluntarily discontinued operation of the brain-removal
device following the initial site visit. No additional cases with illness
onset after removal of this device have been identified through
December 2009 during 24 months of observation.
Additional Abattoir Investigations and Case Finding
Twenty-six U.S. swine abattoirs employing .500 workers were
surveyed. Nine reported removing brains, and only three used a
compressed-air device — Plant A, Plant B in Indiana, and Plant C
in Nebraska. The OIE reported no member countries using
Figure 4. Photograph of brain removal compressed-air device during operation.
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similar brain removal techniques to Plant A. No additional cases
were identified through international contacts.
At Plant B, 112 head-table employees were interviewed during
February 5–8, 2008. Six confirmed IP cases and one probable case
were identified by patient interview, physician referral, and query
of former employees. Four (57%) cases were female, the median
age was 28 years (range, 28–42), and all were Hispanic. Age and
ethnicity were reported to be representative of plant workers;
however, the number of female cases (57%) was disproportionately
higher than the female worker population (38% reported by plant
management). Six of seven cases were hospitalized for IP-related
symptoms, with a median hospital stay of 8.5 days (range, 5–14
days). Four cases developed symptoms in 2007, one in 2006,
and two in 2005 (Figure 2).
Five cases and 106 controls were enrolled in a case-control study
at Plant B. Cases were more likely to report having porcine brain
tissue enter their eyes, nose, or mouth during work (OR, 12.8;
95% CI, 1.4–119.3) and investigators observed workers covered in
brain material. Plant B employs 1,750 workers and slaughters
1,000 hogs/hour, an increase from 860 hogs/hour in February
2006. Plant B had been removing brains since 1993 using a
compressed-air device. In contrast to Plant A, a floor foot pedal
rather than a wire trigger, allowing for direct operator control,
released the compressed air. Use of this device was discontinued
after the investigation.
At Plant C, 67 head-table workers were interviewed during
February 28–29, 2008; none met the case definition, and 43
reported working at the head-table. A query of three former
workers who had terminated employment for medical reasons
identified one worker who met the confirmed case definition. This
worker removed brains using a compressed-air device which had a
hand-held trigger mechanism allowing for greater operator
control. Plant C slaughters hogs during one shift at 1,250/hour,
increased from 1,200/hour in 2006. The abattoir had been
removing brains with compressed air since 1998 and had been
using the current design since 2005. Plant C discontinued the
procedure during investigation of Plant A.
No common source of pigs between Plant A, B, and C was
identified over the study period. The abattoirs were 400–800 miles
apart; in addition, abattoirs in Minnesota and Indiana were
identified that would be expected to have had a similar source of
animals but did not use compressed air to remove brains. Cases
were not identified in any of these other abattoirs.
An additional survey was conducted of the 121 front-line
supervisors in the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service to
verify that no additional facilities were using or had recently used a
supervisors with oversight of 621 U.S. swine abattoirs responded to
the survey. None identified compressed air harvesting beyond the
three plants identified (USDA, personal communication).
Testing was performed on throat swabs from all consenting
participants in the Minnesota case-control study (n=116) and
pooled into 24 pools. Cytopathic effect was observed in a single
pool. This pool had a nonspecific immunofluorescence staining
pattern and herpes simplex virus was isolated. No virus was
isolated from embryonated chicken egg inoculums. All superna-
tants were negative for hemagglutination and no viral elements
were observed by transmission electron microscopy. Indirect
immunofluorescence for all 11 target pathogens was negative. All
Campylobacter throat cultures (n=118) were negative.
16S rRNA PCR was negative on all four blood specimens
tested. Stools from four Minnesota and two Indiana cases were
tested for 27 different stool pathogens within median of 43 days
(range 33–261 days) from clinical onset. No consistent organism
was identified: one case Campylobacter coli and Blastocystis hominis,
one case Adenovirus and Microsporidium, one case Endolimax nana
cysts and Microsporidium spp., one case norovirus, one case Shigella
flexneri, and one case Microsporidium spp.
Laboratory evaluation of case and control samples did not
reveal evidence of a specific infectious etiology for IP (Table 2).
Elevated serum levels of interferon-gamma (IFN-c) were discov-
ered among cases (median, 21.7 pg/ml; range, 6.2–199.8 pg/ml)
versus controls (median, 14.8 pg/ml; range, 2.2–50.1 pg/ml)
(P,0.001) (Figure 5). Approximately 94% of cases had IFN-c
values above the control median (P=0.002).
Exploratory principal components analysis yielded three groups
of cytokines with increased or decreased levels referred to as
factors, with eigenvalues .1, together accounting for 71.5% of the
total common variance. The first factor (elevated IL1b, IL2,
IL12p40, IL6, IL10, MCP1, and MIP1b; decreased IL8)
accounted for 44.7% of the variance; factor 2 (elevated TNFa,
IL1b; decreased IFNc, IL10) accounted for 15.0% of the variance,
and factor 3 (elevated IFNc, IL4, IL8, and IP10) accounted for
11.8%. Emerged factor scores for factor 2 were lowest among the
ill exposed subjects (median, 20.61; range, 22.59 to 2.53) and
highest for the exposed non-ill controls (median 0.69; range,
21.41 to 2.21), with non-exposed, non-ill subjects falling in
between the two exposed groups (median, 0.12; range, 21.83 to
1.08) (P,0.01). Factor 3 scores were highest among the ill exposed
group (median, 1.05; range, 20.97 to 2.57), followed by the non-
exposed non-ill controls (median, 20.37; range, 21.94 to 2.42)
and then the exposed, non-ill control subjects (median, 20.74;
range, 22.03 to 2.78) (P,0.01) (Figure 6). Similarly transformed
IFNc levels were highest among ill, exposed subjects (median,
1.35 pg/ml; range, 0.86 to 2.30 pg/ml), followed by levels among
non-exposed, non-ill controls (median, 1.24 pg /ml; range, 0.53 to
1.68 pg/ml), and lowest among exposed, non-ill subjects (median,
.91 pg/ml; range, 0.50 to 1.71 pg/ml) (P=0.002). Proinflamma-
tory cytokines (elevated IFNc, IL4, IL8, and IL10) were
significantly higher in cases compared to brain-exposed and
non-exposed controls. Brain-exposed controls had lower proin-
flammatory cytokines compared to non-exposed controls.
We report the occurrence of a novel immune-mediated
polyradiculoneuropathy in swine abattoir workers. We identified
15 cases in Minnesota, seven in Indiana, and one in Nebraska
(Figure 2). These cases were defined primarily by the prominence
of early sensory and motor neurologic symptoms, easily identified
motor and reflex examination deficits on neurological examina-
tion, and specific electrophysiological findings. Although addition-
al workers presented with neurologic symptoms, the observed
symptoms were purely sensory and did not meet the epidemiologic
The case definition was developed at the onset of the
investigation for the purpose of identifying risk factors associated
with the illness. For this purpose, in the absence of a clear biologic
marker, inclusion of only those individuals with the most
reproducible signs and readily available diagnostics was important.
All cases had some degree of sensory symptoms, however if
those with only sensory symptoms were included in the case
definition, this would have increased the likelihood of misclassi-
fication bias where persons with sensory symptoms due to another
cause would be included, given the high frequency of factors such
as repetitive motion injury, prolonged standing, and persistently
IP Outbreak in Swine Abattoirs
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org7March 2010 | Volume 5 | Issue 3 | e9782
cold conditions in this occupational setting. Similarly,
excluding persons with mild neurologic symptoms that did not
meet the case definition decreased the chance of misclassification
bias within the controls. Excluding the mild or asymptomatic cases
of disease is a common practice in epidemiologic studies and
The epidemiologic features of the cases are distinguished by
association with exposure to porcine brain harvested by com-
pressed air. Although onsite investigations were not conducted at
abattoirs that removed brains whole or did not remove brains,
none of those abattoirs reported knowledge of unusual neurologic
illness among their employees. All cases in the implicated abattoirs
reported porcine brain exposure. In the Minnesota abattoir,
working at the brain-removal job or the job closest to it (backing
heads), or working at a distance within 3.1 meters from the brain-
removal operation, was associated with illness. Jobs of backing
heads and removing brain at the head-table are considered
preferred jobs. Workers with more seniority successfully bid for
these jobs, possibly explaining why age was significant when
analyzing by head-table controls. No additional cases have been
identified with onset dates after the process ceased in any of the
Autoimmunity appears to be the likely pathogenic mechanism
of IP induced by exposure to aerosolized porcine brain matter.
Mucous membrane contact, inhalation, or possibly through
contact with broken skin are the most likely routes of entry based
on the association of cases with the brain-removal operation, our
observations of the mist of brain created by the removal process,
and the presence of residual brain material on nearby workers.
Exposure to neural tissue including sheep brain[12,13,14,15,16],
sides[12,13,14,15] has been previously epidemiologically linked
with development of autoimmune neuropathy. While similar
illnesses have been described following injection of neural proteins,
to the authors’ knowledge this is the first time that a respiratory,
mucosal, or through broken skin exposure is the likely route of
entry as we have implicated. We cannot exclude the possibility
that the pathogenesis of IP involves either an infection or direct
toxic effect related to a component of porcine brain. However, no
Figure 5. Serum IFNc levels among swine abattoir workers
experiencing immune mediated polyradiculoneuropathy ver-
sus non-ill workers.
Table 2. Serologic testing performed for human and swine infectious agents in the laboratory evaluation of immune- mediated
polyradiculoneuropathy among cases and controls.
Cases n (%) Controls n (%) OR (95% CI)
Swine influenza virus (H2) IgG +
Encephalomyocarditis virus IgG +
Porcine circovirus Type 2 IgG +
Porcine enterovirus IgG subtype 1–8 +
4 (31%) 3 (4%)
b11.6 ( 2.2–60.1)
0 (0%) 4 (5%)
0 (0%)0 (0%)
0 (0%) 0 (0%)
Porcine reproductive and respiratory0 (0%) 0 (0%)
syndrome (PRRS) virus IgG +
Porcine hemagglutinating 2 (15%) 1 (1%)
encephalomyelitis virus IgG +
Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae IgG +
0 (0%)0 (0%)
Hepatitis E virus (HEV)c
HEV IgG +
HEV IgM +
4 (27%)17 (20%) 1.42 (0.41–5.1)
0 (0%)0 (0%)
Abbreviations: CI, confidence interval; OR, odds ratio.
aBlood specimens were collected on 102 consenting participants in the Minnesota case-control study. Not all cases or controls had adequate specimen for the complete
battery of blood tests performed.
bDifferences between cases and controls were noted in the serology results for swine influenza virus and porcine hemagglutinating encephalomyelitis virus; however,
these results accounted for ,32% of the cases.
cSerum was evaluated by commercially available (MP Diagnostics) and in-house enzyme immunoassays using recombinant ORF-2 and ORF-3 proteins as antigens. Stools
from three IP cases were evaluated for HEV RNA by RT PCR, of which all were negative.
IP Outbreak in Swine Abattoirs
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org8 March 2010 | Volume 5 | Issue 3 | e9782
toxic or infectious cause was identified despite a comprehensive
exposure history interview, review of chemicals used in the
abattoirs, and extensive laboratory testing for infectious agents.
An autoimmune mechanism in IP is supported by higher levels
of IFNc in cases than in controls, as elevated IFNc has been
observed among persons experiencing acute or chronic inflam-
CIDP)[20,21]. Further support for the importance of IFNc-
triggered cytokine cascades in IP derives from the parallel
elevations of IFNc and IFNc-inducible protein of 10 kDa (IP-10)
along with the Th2 cytokine, IL-4, and the chemokine, IL-8
(Figure 6). IP-10 is known to be elevated in the CSF of patients
with inflammatory neuropathies and in inflamed peripheral
nervous system the distribution of IP-10 mirrors that of the
chemokine receptor CXCR3, its cognate receptor. Intrigu-
ingly, control subjects who were exposed to brain material but did
not manifest illness were revealed by factor analysis to deviate the
most from the exposed ill group in their cytokine and chemokine
profiles relative to non-exposed, non-ill controls. In comparison
with ill exposed subjects, the factor 2 and 3 scores of exposed non-
ill individuals suggested greater proinflammatory drive (increased
TNFa, IL1b); less skew toward Th2-type cytokines (decreased IL4,
IL10); and decreased IFNc production. It is possible that
diminished IFNc production in the face of exposure to brain
material protected exposed controls from developing disease.
Regardless, among those exposed to brain tissue in this way
reduced IFNc secretion may have utility as a marker for disease
Spontaneous secretion of IFNc by peripheral blood mononu-
clear cells is increased at the peak of clinical disease among
patients in whom AIDP is diagnosed and decreases during
recovery in parallel with rises in serum concentrations of
neutralizing IgG autoantibodies to IFNc. Additionally, IFNc
knock-out mice are protected from development of AIDP-like
illness, implicating IFNc as a critical component in development of
autoimmune inflammatory neuropathies.
Changes in slaughter operations in the affected abattoirs might
have affected the number of workers exposed to porcine brain or
the intensity of exposure and could explain why illness occurred
recently despite the fact that brain removal was occurring years
prior. Workers from two abattoir reported being less efficient at
removing brains after the line speed increased. These workers
reported being unable to place the skulls completely on the brain
removal device before triggering the compressed air, causing
greater splatter of brain material. Plants B and C slaughtered
fewer hogs per hour, and their compressed-air brain removal
designs allowed for more control by the operator, potentially
resulting in less brain splatter and fewer cases than in Plant A.
Proximity to brain removal was the strongest predictor of
disease. However, certain workers positioned close to the brain-
removal operation did not experience disease, indicating a
potential role for genetic susceptibility or other host factors. This
is supported by evidence among Semple rabies vaccine recipients
where unique MHC class II alleles were identified among persons
in whom neuropathy developed, compared with those who did not
One potential limitation of this investigation is the possibility
that despite intensive case-finding efforts employing multiple
methods, other IP cases were not identified. The workers in these
abattoirs were reported to be highly mobile, often terminating
employment rather than taking medical leave. As there was no
specific biological marker for IP and symptoms were nonspecific,
potential cases could have been overlooked. All interview data,
including work history, were self-reported and were subject to
recall bias. Although cases were identified among former abattoir
workers, controls only included the workers who were working at
the abattoir at the time of the investigation.
In summary, IP was more likely to occur among workers who
reported close contact with brains or the job of removing brains by
using compressed air. No additional cases have been identified
with onsets after cessation of brain harvesting by compressed-air
methods in Plants A, B, and C. Our findings indicate that swine
abattoirs and other animal commodity abattoirs should not use
compressed air to remove brains and should avoid any procedures
Figure 6. Two principal component analysis of ill, exposed
non-ill, and non-exposed, non-ill workers. Two principal compo-
nents explain nearly a third of the variance in cytokines and chemokine
levels among swine abattoir workers experiencing immune-mediated
polyradiculoneuropathy, exposed non-ill workers, and non-exposed,
non-ill workers. Analysis includes cases and controls from the Minnesota
and Indiana abattoir. Exposed ill individuals include 15 probable or
confirmed cases. Exposed non-ill includes 25 unaffected individuals that
worked at the headtable or in the headroom. Non-exposed non-ill
includes 28 unaffected individuals that did not work at the headtable or
in the headroom.
IP Outbreak in Swine Abattoirs
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org9 March 2010 | Volume 5 | Issue 3 | e9782
that aerosolize CNS tissue. This outbreak highlights the potential
for respiratory or mucosal exposure to cause an immune-mediated
illness in an occupational setting and the importance of health care
providers taking a careful work place exposure history. The
cooperation between human and animal health organizations
provided an optimal framework for this investigation and
demonstrates the synergy needed to address emerging issues at
the human-animal interface.
Note: The findings and conclusions in this report are those of
the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This investigation could not have been completed without the tireless
efforts of the Investigation Team: Minnesota Department of Health – Joni
Scheftel, Lindsey Lesher, Kathy Como-Sabetti, Ruthie Luna, Carrie
Klumb, Jane Harper, Jean Rainbow, Carl Herbrandson, John Besser, Billie
Juni, Susan Fuller; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Jan
Drobeniuc, Tom Chester; Indiana State Department of Health – Jennifer
Wyatt, Tom Duszynski; Minnesota Department of Agriculture – Heidi
Kassenborg; University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory –
James Collins, Sagar Goyal; Nebraska Department of Health and Human
Services – Tom Safranek, Annette Bredthauer; Columbia University –
We also would like to thank the following persons for their contribution to
this investigation: Minnesota Department of Health – Rebecca Fisher,
Jessie Saavedra, Linda Gabriel, Brenda Jewell, Franci Livingston, Mansour
Hadidi, Eric Anderson, Amy Westbrook, Marcie Babcock, Karen Ever-
stine, Julie Hanson-Perez, Kathy Chinn, Elizabeth Cebelinski, Kate
Klammer, Jaime Christensen, Kelly Gaul, Fe Leano, Lori Triden, Craig
Morin, Elly Pretzel, David Determan, Jayne Griffith, Nicole Heppner, Rita
Messing; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Steve Monroe,
Lawrence Schonberger, Robert Holman, W. Randolph Daley, Chong-Gee
Teo, Jihong Meng, Saleem Kamili, Ingrid Trevino; Nebraska Department
of Health and Human Services – Dana Spindola, Arturo Spindola, Maria
Hines, Lucia Rodriguez, Josh Roland; South Dakota Department of
Health – Lon Kightlinger, Karen Dover; Iowa Department of Public
Health – Ann Garvey; United States Department of Agriculture, Food
Safety and Inspection Service – Lauraine A. Segna, Kristin G. Holt;
United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service, Veterinary Services – Thomas M. Gomez; United
States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service, Veterinary Services, National Veterinary Services Laboratories –
Sabrina Swenson; University of Minnesota – Suraj Mulay, Gareth Perry,
Devi Patnayak, Wendy Wiese, Ashley Kohls, Michael Osterholm; Mayo
Health System – Vickie Miller, Jill DeBoef, Timothy Johnson, Robert
Brown; Plant A – Carole Bower; Management and union representation of
Plants A, B, and C.
Conceived and designed the experiments: SMH AD JJS CL JA JM CM CL
JRH SR EDB JFH BFB MH JDG SEB KS RND WIL RL. Performed the
experiments: SMH AD JJS CL JA JM CM CL JRH SR BFB MH JDG
SEB DHL PJBD RL. Analyzed the data: SMH AD JJS CL JA JM CM CL
JRH BFB MH JDG SEB KS RND RL. Contributed reagents/materials/
analysis tools: SMH AD JJS CL JA JM CM CL JRH SR EDB JFH BFB
MH JDG SEB KS RND WIL DHL PJBD RL. Wrote the paper: SMH AD
JJS JA JRH MH KS RND RL.
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