Mystery illness plagues Garner factory

GARNER The plant on Jones Sausage Road in Garner is the only place in the country that makes the popular beef jerky Slim Jim snack food.

Worker Tanica West claims that she and other employees are having eye problems. West told reporter Steve Daniels that sometimes she can’t see for a couple of hours at a time and she’s frustrated because the company hasn’t been able to figure out what’s causing it.

"[It's] a tingling under the eyelids, the bottom lids, and you start blinking a lot, and it feels like you are developing a slight, a little film, under the eyelid," West told Daniels.

West says it quickly gets worse. She can’t see, and she gets a migraine headache.

"[It's] very painful," said West. "The eyes are very sensitive to light and you’re just unable to see for a couple of hours."

She said it’s happened 10 different times. She’s not alone. ConAgra Foods, which owns the factory, says 46 people have reported similar problems since last summer.

West's doctor has not been able to pinpoint the cause of the problem.

"They have no idea, they, all they're saying is that it's some sort of allergy," West explained.

"They say it's an allergic response, to something in the factory?" asked Daniels.

"Yes, absolutely," West responded.

ConAgra executives have brought in experts from across the country to try and pinpoint the problem.

“I will say that personally and professionally it is frustrating. It is my responsibility to make sure that we provide… a safe and healthy workplace for our employees,” offered Tom Culross.

Culross is in charge of health and safety at ConAgra Foods. He flew in from Omaha to explain how the company is responding to the problem.

“It's a mystery in that right now we don't know where it's coming from but we're going to find it,” he said. “We don't care how long it takes. We're going to identify what it is and get it fixed.”

ConAgra has repeatedly tested the air and cleaned the factory.

“We never want employees to be harmed, or feel any kind of pain,” said Culross. “So, it is a huge concern for us and that's why we're investing the resources that we are.”

West is now taking time off from work, but she’s worried about her coworkers.

“These are big grown strong men that are saying it breaks them down, that you know, that their eyes are hurting, their heads hurting, and they still have to work because they have to go to put food on their table or because they don't want to be terminated, that's a problem for me,” she said.

ConAgra says the problem has not appeared at any other of its factories. It says it has done testing and the Slim Jim is safe to eat.

Click here to contact Steve Daniels if this has happened to you or if you have story ideas for the investigative team.

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