Meat Allergy, But Maybe No Alpha-Gal? Well, Good. I Should Be the Only Alpha-Gal for My Alpha-Kid

Back in January, I wrote about Martin reacting to beef. I speculated that his beef allergy was related to his Lyme disease, and specifically to Alpha-Gal (galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose), a sugar produced in the gut of the Lone Star tick (and possibly other ticks?) that can be transmitted to a human through a bite, causing the human to react to the Alpha-Gal also found in red meat.

The first time Martin showed allergy to any meat other than beef, we were at a restaurant in California. He ordered a bison patty. Before he’d eaten half, the rash appeared around his mouth and spread down his chin and onto his neck, all predominantly on the right side—exactly what happens when he eats beef. I summoned the manager and insisted that the staff must have substituted a beef patty for the bison, or cooked the bison on the same surface as beef. The manager was equally insistent that no such thing had happened. I’m glad I didn’t make too big a deal over the incident, because later, when Martin had the same reaction to bison carefully prepared at home, I realized what actually was going on: His allergy was no longer limited to beef. Since then, Martin has developed a rash after eating elk and venison, too. Most recently, twice, wild boar triggered a histamine reaction in the form of watery eyes and a runny, itchy nose.

Alpha-Gal allergies, which appear to originate exclusively or near-exclusively from tick bites, are increasing rapidly across the Eastern United States. The allergy was first identified in the Southeast. Since then, reports have arisen up the Midwest corridor and in the Northeast. Indeed, one of my meat purveyors, located in the Northeast, kindly sent me a list he’d developed of his products that do and do not contain Alpha-Gal. “We’re getting the question more and more,” he said. “Seems like a lot of people have the allergy, so I made this list.”

Nevertheless, for two reasons, I’m rethinking whether the Alpha-Gal carbohydrate in fact is triggering Martin’s allergy.

First, when he eats red meat, Martin develops a rash immediately. All studies and informational sites I’ve reviewed indicate that an Alpha-Gal allergic reaction to eating mammalian meat is a delayed reaction, typically manifesting three-to-six hours after ingestion.

(By contrast, an Alpha-Gal reaction tends to be immediate when the body encounters the carbohydrate through injection or infusion, as opposed to ingestion. For example, exposure to intravenous cetuximab, which is a monoclonal antibody specific to epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and used in cancer treatment, has caused immediate reaction because it contains Alpha-Gal. And even without an allergy per se, Alpha-gal is the likely culprit when porcine bioprostheses, utilized in cardiac surgery, cause xenograft immune response.)

Second, Martin reacts differently to wild boar than to beef, bison, venison, or elk. The higher-myoglobin meats cause a rash—red blotches sometimes accompanied by raised patches—that doesn’t seem to cause Martin discomfort. Wild boar, however, makes his eyes water and then become puffy (most likely from his rubbing them), and makes his nose bother him. Since the Alpha-Gal carbohydrate is in the same form in all these meats (I think?), it seems counterintuitive that Martin’s reaction would vary.

So I am investigating whether Martin might have developed a meat allergy other than Alpha-Gal. The investigation has proved challenging, because I’ve found almost no information about meat allergies other than Alpha-Gal, other than statements that such allergies exist but are rare. There are tests advertised to detect meat allergy (I’ve never looked into them and express no opinion on whether they work). It seems that, if the Alpha-Gal carbohydrate is not to blame, then the person is probably reacting to specific proteins.

As to pork, and specifically Martin’s teary-eyed reaction to wild boar meat instead of higher-myoglobin meats, there is something called pork-cat syndrome. (Seriously. “Pork-cat syndrome.” I’m not making this up.) Persons with respiratory allergies to cat albumin (a protein made by the liver) may also demonstrate allergy to pork, given the structural similarities between cat and pig/boar albumin. Two years ago Martin developed a respiratory allergy to cats, though I’m not sure whether he reacts to cat albumin or to Fel d 1, which is the more common cat allergen. Maybe “pork-cat syndrome”—it’s hard for me even to type the name without laughing—explains the boar reaction.

Then there was the last day of school, in June. Here’s something I wrote in my July 4 post about medical cannabis:

On the last day of school we invited friends and classmates (both challenged and typically developing) to a pool party. I grilled burgers, beef for the guests and boar for Martin. I had a variety of burger buns on hand for the kids’ diets and allergies. I had no bun for Martin’s burger, because he has never had, or requested, a bun. This time, he did request a bun, and became agitated when I wasn’t able to produce one for him. I wanted to avoid a meltdown, especially in front of the typical classmates, so I let Martin eat an Udi’s® Gluten Free Classic Hamburger Bun. (According to the listed ingredients, these rolls contain resistant corn starch, cultured corn syrup solids, maltodextrin. I never would have given one to Martin under ordinary circumstances.) About ten minutes later, Martin was screaming and clawing at his torso. He’d had some sort of allergic reaction, to something. I pulled off his swim shirt and saw his midsection covered in red welts, with bumps emerging before my eyes. I shoved a spoonful of dye-free Benadryl into his mouth a tried to calm him.

. . . I had no idea whether Martin was reacting to the Udi’s roll; it could as likely have been residue from the beef burgers, or given that he was affected almost exclusively from waist to chest, some contaminant on his swim shirt or something he’d got into around the pool.

Now I’m wondering whether the culprit was the boar, plain and simple.

When I wrote the post in January about Martin’s beef allergy and the possible indictment of Alpha-Gal, I fretted that the allergy could spread from beef to other red meats. That’s happened. I’m on to worrying that if the allergy is something other than Alpha-Gal, it could spread beyond red meats to poultry as well.

Here’s another thing: I’m a long-time vegan who felt compelled to allow her son to eat meat in order to heal his digestive issues. Let’s spend a few minutes contemplating the irony of my son developing an apparent allergy to meat.