Study Links Store-bought Chicken to Urinary Tract Infections

New research explains how a particular strand of E. coli that survives in birds could be a cause of UTIs in humans.
Shelby Rogers

Eating raw chicken (and the subsequent stomach issues it causes) is any food fan's worst nightmare. For years, researchers have studied just how bad eating raw poultry could be, and have connected it to a number of different issues. A new study published in mBio offered yet another issue with eating under cooked chicken: urinary tract infections (UTIs) stemming from E. coli. 

Discovering the Connection Between Poultry and Illness

Both E. coli and UTIs are painful in their own ways. UTIs lead to painful urination, muscle aches, and deep pangs. E. coli often leads to the standard symptoms of a stomach bug, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Previous studies foudn that over 80 percent of UTIs are caused by E. coli. However, only a handful of strains are responsible for a majority of infections. And one strand of E. coli -- E. coli ST131 -- is particularly deadly, killing thousands across the globe each year. 

The trickiest part about E. coli ST131 is that researchers largely had little understanding of how people got it. Previous studies also left retail meat out of the realm of possibilities. 

This new study from George Mason University (GMU) Milken Institute School of Public Health now shows that, when undercooked, your favorite store-bought poultry could be part of the problem. 

Director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center Lance Price led the study in question. They conducted a one-year examination of retail chicken, turkey and pork from major grocery chains in Flagstaff, Arizona. They also collected urine and blood samples taken from patients at the Flagstaff Medical Center. 

In nearly 2,500 meat samples, 80 percent contained E. coli. Of the samples collected, 72 percent of the infected urine and blood cultures were from E. coli ST131. 

The team then needed to see if the bacteria were related and if the infected people in question got the infections from poutry. 

Price and the team then studied the genomes of the E. coli cells. They noticed a strain of E. coli that helped the virus survive in birds was also found in the same strains associated with UTIs. 

"In the past, we could say that E. coli from people and poultry were related to one another, but with this study, we can more confidently say that the E. coli went from poultry to people and not vice versa," said Price, who is also a Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at Milken Institute SPH. 

Improving Public Safety, One Chicken at a Time

Prior to this study, there hadn't been any that made the connection between this particular strand of E. coli and UTIs. 

"This particular E. coli strain appears capable of thriving in poultry and causing disease in people," said Cindy Liu, MD, MPH, PhD, first author of the paper and chief medical officer at ARAC. "Poultry products could be an important vehicle for bacteria that can cause diseases other than diarrhea."

The team is working on solidifying connections between the two, and hope to improve public safety through their research.

"We are now working to measure what proportion of UTIs might be caused by foodborne E. coli by looking at all E. coli strains, not only ST131," Price said. "This is not an easy question to answer but an extremely important one."

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