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.