There is growing concern about the safety of agricultural products, especially meat. Recalls are becoming more frequent - it’s early February, and according to the USDA, there have already been three meat recalls so far this year. Even more troubling is that approximately 70% of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are regularly given to farm animals for non-therapeutic reasons - not to treat existing infections – non-therapeutic use of anibiotics has been used for decades to promote weight gain in animals, which increases meat production and therefore profits.1 These practices are potentially fueling the emergence of dangerous drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which could make their way into our food supply.
Six to eight million cases of urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur each year in the U.S., 80% of which are caused by E. coli that is ingested in food, lives in the intestinal tract, and then travels from the intestinal tract to the urinary tract. Infections of the urinary tract are also the most common source of bacteria causing sepsis, or infection of the bloodstream. Drug-resistant bacterial UTIs are of course more difficult to treat.
Since intestinal E. coli is the most common source of UTIs, a group of Canadian researchers decided to test whether there was a link between contaminated food products and UTIs. These researchers had previously found that women who frequently ate chicken and pork were more likely to have drug-resistant UTIs.2
They collected urine samples from women diagnosed with urinary tract infections between 2005 and 2007. During this same time period they also collected samples of supermarket purchased chicken products, restaurant meals, and ready-to-eat foods.
Two isolated groups of E. coli were genetically indistinguishable between the chicken samples and human UTI samples. This means that these bacteria likely originated from the same source, and furthermore establishes that chicken products are a food-based source for bacteria that cause human UTIs.3
If you do not consume animal products, you can still reduce your risk of exposure by washing produce thoroughly – produce can become contaminated by animals or humans infected with E.coli.4
If you do eat animal products, you can take these steps to reduce the risk of ingesting harmful bacteria: cook meat and eggs thoroughly, be careful not to contaminate surfaces or other foods with raw meat, refrigerate leftovers promptly, and wash produce thoroughly.
Purchasing meat from a source that does not practice non-therapeutic antibiotic use is a further step you can take to not promote the practices that drive the emergence of drug-resistant bacterial strains. Animals raised for meat and poultry products that carry the USDA organic label are not permitted to be given antibiotics.5
2. Manges AR, Smith SP, Lau BJ, Nuval CJ, Eisenberg JN, Dietrich PS, et al. Retail meat consumption and the acquisition of antimicrobial resistant Escherichia coli causing urinary tract infections: a case-control study. Foodborne Pathog Dis. 2007;4:419–31. DOI:10.1089/fpd.2007.0026
3. Vincent C, Boerlin P, Daignault D, et al. Food reservoir for Escherichia coli causing urinary tract infections. Emerg Infect Dis. 2010;16:88-95.