There is growing evidence that there may be a link between bacteria on meat and antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections in people — and that link is starting to get high profile media attention.

On Wednesday, ABC ran a segment featuring the latest research on both Good Morning America and World News with Diane Sawyer, programs with a combined daily viewership of more than 10 million. ABC called the research “compelling new evidence of a direct link between the pervasive, difficult-to-cure human disease and the antibiotic-fed chicken people buy at the grocery store.”

Canadian researchers recently published a study in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Emerging Infectious Diseases journal that found genetic similarities between E. coli from animals sampled at slaughterhouses and the E. coli that causes UTIs and suggested that chickens were the most likely reservoir for the bacteria. Most recently, some of the same researchers published a study in the journal of Foodborne Pathogens and Disease that found retail poultry meat had the highest levels of drug-resistant E. coli.

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are the second most common type of infection in the body, accounting for 8.1 million visits to health care providers in the United States each year and around $1-2 billion per year in health care costs. Around 85 percent of these infections are caused by extraintestinal pathogenic Escherichia coli, or ExPEC, which doctors long assumed came from patient’s own intestines. New research, however, has been looking at outside sources as potentially part of the problem.

“What this new research shows is, we may in fact know where it’s coming from. It may be coming from antibiotics used in agriculture,” said Maryn McKenna, a reporter for the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which worked with ABC news on their investigation. McKenna, a leading infectious disease journalist and the author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, penned an in depth piece for The Atlantic that also ran on Wednesday.

“The researchers contend that poultry — especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat — is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right,” wrote McKenna. “Touching raw meat that contains the resistant bacteria, or coming into environmental contact with it — say, by eating lettuce that was cross-contaminated — are easy ways to become infected.”

The National Chicken Council pushed back against the report, citing veterinarians who questioned the research and argued that antibiotics usage on farms was likely not the issue.

“Bacteria move dynamically, not just in one direction and bacteria do not necessarily move from animals to humans so all pathways must be considered,” said Randall Singer, DVM, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, who reviewed the scientific literature referenced in the ABC report. “Perhaps most importantly, the potential transmission of E. coli to humans says nothing about why these E. coli are antibiotic resistant. The resistances observed in these E. coli are common globally and are unlikely to be attributed to chickens given the few antibiotics available for use in poultry in the U.S.”

Dr. Singer added that he believes the study “has nothing to do with antibiotics in poultry production and further changes to antibiotic use in poultry will not change the potential human health risks associated with these foodborne E. coli.”

ABC’s medical editor, Richard Besser, who formerly served as acting head of the CDC, shared a different view with Diane Sawyer on Wednesday evening.

“I think these scientists are right, but I think it’s going to be impossible to prove,” said Besser. “Its different from when you get a stomach bug, or a stomach flu, where you eat something and within a couple days you’re sick and you can actually test the food and see if it matches. Here if you eat contaminated chicken, contaminated with a superbug, that superbug can set up shop in your gut and it may not be until several months later that you get a bladder infection. At that point there’s no way to connect it to something you ate months before.”

Besser emphasized the importance of proper food handling, but blamed antibiotic use in animal agriculture as the underlying problem.

“The solution is going to be on the farm,” said Besser. “CDC for decades has been concerned about getting antibiotics off the farm as a form of feed. You don’t want to feed antibiotics to animals that we’re going to eat.”

Besser recommended that anyone who has a recurring UTI flag the issue for their doctor so they can get effective treatment, such as stronger antibiotics.

  • debbi

    If you really want to find the cause of bladder infections go check out Charmin Toilet paper!! I almost got a divorce because of it. I did prove it was the paper!!

  • Alice

    Please report greater detail regarding how, exactly, these dreadful e.coli that are taking up residence in people’s bladders find their way there in the first place. How are these bladder infections being seeded?
    Oh wait, on second thought please don’t tell us details of how these mournfully afflicted people are exposing themselves to this unusual hazard. I really don’t think I can stand the mental image of what these people must be doing with those chickens to get e. coli all up in there the way they do.
    Maybe just tone down the alarmism and put risk of infection into context for normal non-perverted folks and leave it at that? Thanks.

  • truth doc

    Limited group at risk, specific high risk behavior implicated. “The public should not be alarmed”.
    Here’s the lowdown from nearer the source of this study (Uh, fair warning — squeamish folks or those with weak hearts may want to avert their eyes):
    ScienceDaily (Jan. 20, 2010) — “Chicken sold in supermarkets, restaurants and other outlets may place young women at risk of urinary tract infections (UTI), …Eating contaminated meat or food does not directly lead to a UTI. While some E. coli such as O157:H7 can cause serious intestinal disease, these E. coli bacteria can live in the intestine without causing problems. In women however, the bacteria can travel from the anus to the vagina and urethra during sex, which can lead to the infection….The public should not be alarmed. Manges advises that consumers should cook meat thoroughly and prevent contamination of other foods in the kitchen. Although some infections caused by these E. coli are resistant to some antibiotics, the infections can still be treated. Manges hopes that understanding how these bacteria are transmitted will help reduce infections.”
    Oh my goodness gracious……

  • I’m reminded of the scene from the documentary, “A River of Waste”.
    The documentary host takes a package of chicken out of refrigerator and talks about how experts advise to cook the chicken to a certain temperature. He then puts on a safety mask, protective suit, opens the package and starts putting it on parchment on a cooking sheet.
    While laying the chicken out, he questions how cooking the chicken to the proper temperature is going to protect against all the possible cross-contamination: to other foods, surfaces, utensils, hands, even accidental exposure on clothes.
    When he’s finished removing the chicken from the package, he places the empty package in a waste basket with a biohazard label. He then picks up the parchment with the chicken and tosses the whole thing into the biohazard waste basket.
    Can’t always dump responsibility on the consumer.

  • Ted

    Only ABC News could fall for an outlandish speculation like this one.
    Little wonder Besser was only temporarily installed as acting director of CDC and unceremoniously turned out at the earliest opportunity. Here he leaps to the preposterous conclusion chicken, of all things, is the root cause of infectious complications from aberrant sexual activity. The guy is a quack…or in keeping with the salacious nature of this bizarre story, the guy is a douche. Oh well, birds of a feather…he’s colleagues with national health myth fanatics Oz and Avila and Dianne Sawyer. They enjoy a large following of orthorexic hypochondriacs. They will do anything for ratings.

  • federal microbiologist

    Predictable remarks attacking the validity of the urinary tract E. coli study from Randy Singer, at the University of Minnesota Vet School.
    Singer regularly gives presentations, and publishes papers, in his role as a defender of industrial food animal production (IFAP), CAFOs, and the bulk use of antibiotics for weight gain.
    Here’s a link to a video of Singer’s presentation at the 2011 Iowa Pork Congress conference.
    The usual tale of how ‘science’ doesn’t support a role for IFAP in the advent of antibiotic resistant organisms.
    The conference is sponsored in part by (of course !) Pfizer….

    • glennk

      These hacks have no conscience do they? I bet this guys father worked for the Tobacco Institute in the 50’s.

  • Pedro Pompeyo Osores Morante

    The transgenics food of chickens maybe its the cause

  • Jerry

    OK, how did they know it was chicken and not something else? Could somebody please connect the dots here? If there is a connection between chicken and UTI it seems even more iffy to say chicken causes UTI. You could just as easily say UTI causes chicken, couldn’t you? The entire story is absurd. What else does chicken cause? Do the eggs cause it too? I think it must be something in the water causing so much stupidity around here.

  • Colby

    I only had to read as far as “ABC News…and Good Morning America”. Certain to be some sort of overly excited airhead misinterpretation of something unverified and unimportant. These ABC hacks give “scoop” a nice old fashioned meaning…like the scoop I use to clean the cat’s litter box.

  • heather

    I don’t know what you are reading here that causes you to think there is some kind of aberrant sexual activity involved. E. coli is a very common culprit in UTI’s. It is commonly introduced to the urethra of women , which is very short and very proximal to the anus and vagina, through normal intercourse and by way of poor hygenic toileting practices, i.e. wiping “back t front” after a bowel movement. Nothing creepy or mysterious about that. E. coli lives in the gut of all humans, and pathogenic forms (like the familiar 0157 strain) can take up residence in the gut when ingested. There are many types of E. coli. The type of e-coli found on the chicken can be genotyped and matched to that of the bacteria cultured from the infected urine. Preparing the chicken safely will kill the germs
    Why is any of this shocking? Did you somehow jump to an errant conclusion that women were somehow having direct sexual contact with chicken? Perhaps you need to re-read this article. Have none of the readers here any sexual experience or did you just miss out on basic sex/ health education?

  • Bethan

    What about organic chicken?

    • glennk

      Sounds like a good idea. My wife has had 3 UTIs in the last 8 mos. We eat chix atleast once a week. I think its time to go to Organic or even farm yard raised Chix and use plastic gloves while preparing it.