Today is Easter Sunday. I’ll be having dinner with family at my parent’s home. My mom will be serving her traditional ham.
Mmm hot, sweet, and smoky ham. It’s one of the best things she makes, a favorite from childhood on. Leftovers at their house this week will include another favorite, scalloped potatoes, and a not-so-favorite, split pea soup. But she may have extra leftovers because I’m not sure I want to eat the ham this year. Not because I’m committed to some fad diet that doesn’t include ham, or because I’m watching my salt, or because I’ve finally decided to take the plunge into a vegetarian lifestyle. No, it’s something else, something that has been on my mind for about a month, mingling with things that I’ve learned prior to that about how we in this country produce our food. Call it an emerging fear, maybe even paranoia, but my misgivings about our food supply have been growing and something I read last month in the New York Times has really gotten my attention and hasn’t let go yet. So be forewarned: what I’m about to talk about might dampen your enthusiasm for ham and pork and bacon too. Or maybe you can write this off as mere speculation and happily go back to attacking that still-steaming slice of ham.
According to this article on nytimes.com: “A Medical Mystery Unfolds in Minnisota,” a mysterious neurological illness has broken out among workers at a pig slaughterhouse in Minnesota. Not just random workers either; all of the afflicted workers are on or near a specific processing line, a workstation referred to as the “head table,” where the severed heads of the hogs are processed.
One of the procedures at the head table is to literally blow the brains out of the skull using highly pressurized air, a process that splatters the workers with flying bits of vaporized brain tissue that get on their exposed skin, into their eyes, nose, and mouth, and inhaled into their lungs. Hour after hour, day after day. The packing plant processes 19,000 hogs along with their heads every day. This procedure has been used in Minnesota since 1998, and only two other of the 25 packing plants that were checked use the same procedure. Only one of those two, in Indiana, has a few workers that are showing similar symptoms. Strange that this illness has suddenly shown up now when this procedure has been in use for about ten years.
(By the way, if you’re interested in the job, starting pay is $11 to $12 bucks an hour.)
The crippling illness involves serious nerve damage. It isn’t contagious and infection has apparently been ruled out. The spinal cord is inflamed from what appears to be an auto-immune reaction. The immune system is attacking the patient’s own nerves as if they are foreign. That doesn’t sound like much fun.
Twelve patients had arrived with these symptoms by November of last year, all of them having worked near the “head table.” Fortunately for these workers, the packing plant is located near the famed Mayo Clinic. Some of the best doctors in the country are working on figuring this out. So much cutting edge research is performed at the Mayo that it is published in over 2800 bio-medical publications a year. That must involve a lot of research subjects. I’ve never been there but the place must be huge.
A quick peek at their web site confirmed something I was looking for: one research area looks at Valvular Heart Disease, its treatments and surgical procedures. I’m vaguely familiar with one surgical procedure because my brother has had a heart valve replaced – with a valve from a pig’s heart. It’s a life-saving procedure and my family is grateful that treatment was available for my brother. How convenient for the heart researchers at the Mayo Clinic that a pig slaughterhouse is nearby. It probably means ready access to hogs. I can’t imagine taking just the pig’s heart and throwing the rest of the animal away. It seems reasonable to guess that the ham on my family’s plates could have come from the same animal that provided a valve to someone’s heart. Waste not, want not.
But medical researchers aren’t stopping at pig valves. They are working hard to genetically alter pigs in order to make their organs more compatible to humans. Scientists would like to transplant pig hearts into human patients and they’ve made a lot of progress. At the Mayo Clinic, they’ve already managed to keep a baboon alive with the heart from a pig that has had a human gene inserted. Recent publications out of the Mayo Clinic’s Xenotransplantation program (transplanting organs from an animal into a human) include such titles as “Cardiac xenotransplantation: Recent preclinical progress with 3-month median survival.” (2005) and “T cell responses during pig-to-primate xenotransplantation” (2006,) and also “Increased immunosuppression not anticoagulation extends cardiac xenograft survival” (2006). Thousands of lives could be saved annually if this research is successful and scientists are just about there.
What does a genetically altered pig look like? Probably a lot like any other pig, even if it does have a human gene or two inserted. It probably eats like a pig and grunts like a pig, mucks in the mud like any other pig. A pig farm that breeds genetically altered pigs probably has a lot in common with any other pig farm. The workers on the pig farm might be a lot like any ordinary farmer, doing chores, feeding hogs. Ideally such a farm would be located near the market for its products, in this case a large experimental medical facility. Or a packing plant. Waste not, want not.
What has changed recently at the hog packing plant? Maybe it’s the hogs.
From the New York Times article:
“Clearly, all the answers aren’t in yet,” Dr. Osterholm said. “But it makes biologic sense that what you have here is an inhalation of brain material from these pigs that is eliciting an immunologic reaction.” What may be happening, he said, is “immune mimicry,” meaning that the immune system makes antibodies to fight a foreign substance — something in the hog brains — but the antibodies also attack the person’s nerve tissue because it is so similar to some molecule in hog brains.
“That’s the beauty and the beast of the immune system,” Dr. Osterholm said. “It’s so efficient at keeping foreign objects away, but anytime there’s a close match it turns against us, too.”
So I have to ask: Did genetically altered pigs from the Mayo Clinic end up at the nearby packing plant? Have genetically altered pigs entered our food supply? Hogs carrying human genes? If so, how much have these hogs been altered? Why haven’t we been told? Should we care? They’re being tested like a medical device, shouldn’t they be tested to determine if they’re safe for human consumption before we start eating them?
How do you feel about ham now?