Lone Star tick alarms meat lovers

A bite from a Lone Star tick causes humans to produce an antibody that causes a bad reaction several months later when red meat, gelatin or milk products are consumed.  |  cdc.gov  / James Gathany photo

The insect is rare in Canada so there is little threat of developing an allergy to meat after being bitten: researchers

Despite recent concerns over the presence of ticks that can cause people to become allergic to red meat, there’s little Canadian producers and consumers need to worry about, say researchers.

For one thing, there aren’t any reported cases of Lone Star ticks breeding in Canada, according to Shaun Dergousoff, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge, Alta.

“It’s very rare to find a Lone Star tick,” he said.

Plus, the red meat allergy the ticks can trigger in humans is about as common as a peanut allergy, which affects only 0.1 percent of the American population, he added.

“Even if we did have an endemic population, a low proportion of people will get this allergy.”

But that hasn’t stopped some from panicking .

Earlier this summer, concerns were raised after researchers in the Maritimes and Ontario reported that since 2012 they have come across roughly five Lone Stars, which are named after the small white star that’s found on the back of females.

The Lone Star’s bite could cause susceptible humans to produce alpha-gal, an antibody they once didn’t have, roughly one to three months after they were bitten. The alpha-gal negatively reacts when red meat, gelatin or milk products are consumed.

Humans who get the allergy usually become sensitive to red meat one two three months after the bite. Symptoms, which are usually seen two to 10 hours after a meal, can produce hives or swelling. Serious and potentially life-threatening reactions can also occur.

However, the ticks aren’t re-producing in Canada and, if they’re found, they’ve usually arrived on travellers or animals from the eastern and mid-western United States, which is where many Lone Stars breed. Nymphs can also travel via birds.

“They’re way low on the list of worries,” said Janet Sperling, a PhD candidate at the department of biological sciences at the University of Alberta, noting she’s seen the occasional Lone Star tick.

“Though it’s really unlikely to get this allergy, it’s something we should all be aware of. If you see one, you should identify and submit it.”

Dergousoff agreed that it’s not something we need to be afraid of, but noted “we can’t ignore the risk in the future.”

Currently, the Public Health Agency of Canada is studying how Lone Star populations might move north as the climate warms. The agency plans to identify locations in Canada where the ticks could survive, and it expects to publish results sometime in 2018.

“To date, we have detected small numbers of individual lone star ticks in the environment in several provinces,” said Maryse Durette, a spokesperson for the agency, in an email. “However, the risk of exposure to these ticks is very low and, as a result, development of an allergy from these bites would also be very low.”

As for cattle producers, Dergousoff said he hasn’t seen demands for meat in the U.S decrease due to Lone Star populations.

“I can’t really say it affects the bottom line,” he said. “In any reading I’ve done, it hasn’t come up as something that’s been an issue for profitability or demand.

“So, continue to enjoy the outdoors while taking precautions against ticks, and enjoy Canadian beef.”

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