Of all the (alleged) downside of being an omnivore—that is, someone who subsists on the diet of plant and animal foods that’s sustained humanity for oh, two or three hundred thousand years—the latest flap over the effects of meat-eating is as unlikely, as bizarre and as disturbing as it gets.
And it’s even more compelling because it involves The Hamptons, that iconic enclave of super-rich New Yawkahs who escape Manhattan’s oppressive heat and humidity by summering in their Gatsby-esque compounds and pricey beachfront bungalows.
Here’s the story, according to multiple news reports: It appears people are developing an allergy to red meat that’s caused by a species of tick that is invading Long Island’s refuge for the super-rich. The offending insect is known as the Lone Star tick, which is not named for the state of Texas, but because of a single white spot on the backs of the females of the species.
Scientists and public health officials explained that the tick’s bite infects people with a carbohydrate called alpha-gal, which is also present in meat. It is believed that some people’s immune systems begin to attack alpha-gal as an allergen, leading to often serious reactions.
For example, one resident of Southampton said he began waking up in the middle of the night, unable to breath and covered in hives. Although doctors realized it was some sort of allergy and administered antihistamines, the symptoms occurred only when he ate lamb, steak or burgers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “The allergic reactions range from vomiting and abdominal cramps to hives to anaphylaxis (a severe form of shock), which can lead to breathing difficulties and sometimes even death.”
Worse, the symptoms usually don’t occur until three to six hours after the person eats a meal with red meat, which makes it unlike most food allergies that cause a rapid reaction.
The range of the Lone Star tick may be expanding, as the tick, once found only in the Southeast, has been spreading into the West and even New York and New England.
Covered in hives—and loving it
The connection between ticks and meat was discovered by Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, an allergy researcher at the University of Virginia, who noticed that some cancer patients who exhibited allergic reactions to the drug cetuximab had antibodies to alpha-gal, which is also present in the drug. Platts-Mills discovered that only patients from the southeastern “tick-belt” had allergic reactions, and he began routinely asking about tick exposure.
Then the WSJ story gets downright creepy.
“Platts-Mills himself returned from hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 2007 with his ankles covered in tiny Lone Star larvae. His blood soon tested positive for the telltale antibodies to alpha-gal. A few months later, he ate lamb for dinner at a meeting in London and awoke at 2 am covered in hives. ‘I went back to sleep, pleased that I had another case to report on,’ he said.”
And that’s the difference between us and him.
There is some upside to this red meat horror story, however. According to reports, researchers have noted that the allergy seems to recede after a number of years have passed since the tick bite that triggered the initial reaction.
That is, as long as the affected person doesn’t get bitten by another Lone Star tick.
So to summarize, the good news: You can afford to spend your summers in The Hamptons.
The bad news: You spend your summers in The Hamptons.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.