Most Urinary Tract Infections Are Caused by Raw Chicken

cafo chicken

Story at-a-glance -

  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs) may be a foodborne illness caused by eating chicken contaminated with certain strains of E. coli
  • A study of chicken, pork and turkey samples from retail stores found nearly 80 percent contained E. coli, as did about 70 percent of those diagnosed with a UTI in the area
  • A strain of E. coli known as E. coli ST131 showed up in both the meat samples, particularly poultry, and the human UTI samples
  • Most of the E. coli in the poultry was a variety known as ST131-H22, which is known to thrive in birds and was also found in the human UTI samples

By Dr. Mercola

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are incredibly common, affecting up to 60 percent of women during their lifetime1 and leading to close to 10 million doctor visits in the U.S. annually.2 Most UTIs (about 80 to 90 percent) are caused by E. coli bacteria, which can be introduced into your urinary tract in a number of ways.

While many strains of E. coli live in your intestines, and can end up causing a UTI if introduced to your urinary tract via your own feces or during sexual intercourse, other strains of E. coli come from external sources like contaminated food. E. coli-contaminated food is often associated with foodborne illness like vomiting and diarrhea, but it turns out UTIs may be a form of foodborne illness too.

In fact, in a study led by Lance Price, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, it’s suggested that “People are definitely picking up those infections from poultry” and “We have to open up our heads and acknowledge that foodborne infections aren’t just diarrhea and/or vomiting; they can be UTIs, too.”3

Eating Chicken May Give You a UTI

Chicken is often considered to be a healthy source of protein, but when you consider the contamination risks that come with eating CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) chicken, this is highly debatable.

The study involved nearly 2,500 chicken, pork and turkey samples purchased from large retail stores in Flagstaff, Arizona, nearly 80 percent of which were found to contain E. coli.4 The researchers also tested blood and urine samples from people who visited a major medical center in the area, finding E. coli in about 70 percent of those diagnosed with a UTI.

In particular, a strain of E. coli known as E. coli ST131 showed up in both the meat samples, particularly poultry, and the human UTI samples. Most of the E. coli in the poultry was a variety known as ST131-H22, which is known to thrive in birds and was also found in the human UTI samples. As reported by Gizmodo:5

“This lineage, called ST131-H22, had mobile strands of DNA (known as plasmids) that are only often seen in strains of E. coli that spread among birds, not humans.

Human samples of this E. coli strain, carrying these plasmids, were closely related to meat strains with these same plasmids, further implicating the birds as the true origin of infection (as opposed to, for example, factory workers who contaminated the poultry with their own E. coli).”

“Our results suggest that one ST131 sublineage — ST131-H22 — has become established in poultry populations around the world and that meat may serve as a vehicle for human exposure and infection,” the researchers noted, adding that this E. coli lineage is just one of many that may be transmitted from poultry and other meat sources to people.

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Why CAFO Chicken Is Not a Healthy Protein Source

Price noted that the study should serve as a reminder to cook poultry thoroughly and handle it carefully during preparation,6 but another option is to skip CAFO chicken entirely. It’s easily one of the most contaminated foods in the U.S. and also has a weak nutritional profile compared to other protein sources, including pasture-raised chicken.

The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) published a study that compared the nutrition of chickens fed on pasture with the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference values for CAFO chicken, for example. The pasture-raised chickens were higher in vitamins D3 and E and had an average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to the USDA’s value of 1-to-15.7

If you’re not familiar with the importance of the omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, the ideal ratio is 1-to-1, but the typical Western diet may be between 1-to-20 and 1-to-50. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a ratio of 1-to-5 for general health and 1-to-2 for optimal brain development. CAFO chicken, and for that matter CAFO anything, certainly isn’t helping anyone achieve that goal.

Not to mention, one study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts, as you would purchase in the grocery store, had an astonishing positive rate of 26.2 percent contamination with salmonella.8 Many people are not aware that chicken is actually responsible for an alarming number of cases of foodborne illness every year.

According to the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, there were 5,760 reported foodborne outbreaks between 2009 and 2015, resulting in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths.9 Of these, chicken was responsible for the most outbreak-associated illnesses — 3,114 illnesses in total (12 percent).

Salmonella contamination is of particular concern, as data suggests multidrug-resistant salmonella has become particularly prevalent. And, raw chicken has become a notorious carrier of salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium perfringens and listeria bacteria.10

One-Third of Chicken Slaughter Facilities Aren’t Properly Testing for Salmonella

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) is charged with overseeing the safety of the nation's meat production. For many years, they tested whole chicken carcasses for salmonella, even though most chicken sold in the U.S. is sold cut up into parts like thighs, wings and drumsticks.

Chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts tend to have higher contamination rates than whole carcasses, with one study finding an astonishing positive rate of 26.2 percent contamination with salmonella.11

In February 2016, FSIS announced they would be doing routine testing of chicken parts in an effort to reduce the percentage of contaminated chicken sold, setting a maximum acceptable positive rate of 15.4 percent of chicken parts contaminated with salmonella.

As it turns out, however, a June 2018 FSIS report found that we still don’t know the extent of salmonella contamination in U.S. chicken parts because 35 percent of large chicken-slaughter facilities in the U.S. are not meeting FSIS inspection standards.12

One in particular, Sanderson Farms, is out of FSIS compliance at 10 of its 11 chicken-slaughter facilities. This is the same chicken giant that has refused to take any measures to curb their antibiotic use. It’s unknown whether any disciplinary action has been taken on FSIS’ part, but Tom Philpott, food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out.13

Poultry giants like Sanderson are quick to pass the blame, stating that it’s easy to eradicate salmonella from chicken by cooking it. But it’s also easy to be sickened by salmonella while simply handling and preparing raw chicken. FSIS even found that when handling raw poultry, 97 percent of participants failed to wash their hands successfully when they should have and 48 percent cross-contaminated spice containers because of it.14

Also concerning, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that not only is grocery store chicken commonly contaminated with salmonella but 1 in 5 strains is resistant to the penicillin drug amoxicillin. Seventy-three percent of salmonella found on ground turkey was also found to be antibiotic resistant.15

Super UTIs on the Rise: Could Chicken Be Partly to Blame?

The featured study did not find the E. coli strains they tested to be super resistant, but they were sometimes resistant to antibiotics commonly used on CAFOs. Price told Gizmodo, “These strains weren’t super resistant, but I think it underscores the relevance of antibiotic use in animal products … If I was paid by the industry, I might have doubt about that. But I’m not, so I don’t.”16

At a time when antibiotic-resistant UTIs are on the rise in the U.S., any potential contributors deserve to be examined, and CAFO chicken is certainly among them. In 2012, researchers also revealed that chicken appeared to be a likely reservoir for UTI-causing E. coli in humans,17 adding that they were particularly concerned about drug-resistant E. coli spreading on farms.

“During the past decade, the emergence of drug-resistant E. coli has dramatically increased,” they wrote in Emerging Infectious Diseases. “As a consequence, the management of UTIs, which was previously straightforward, has become more complicated; the risks for treatment failure are higher, and the cost of UTI treatment is increasing.”18

A survey of UTIs at a northern California emergency room further revealed that close to 6 percent were caused by drug-resistant bacteria,19 and in close to half of them, there had been no exposure to hospitals or other health care settings that would normally be expected as a risk factor. Because of this, “it may simply be impossible to identify which patients are at risk,” the study’s lead author said.20

Leave Raw Chicken in the Store

Many Americans couldn’t imagine their diets without chicken making a regular appearance, but it wasn’t always this way. In fact, as recently as the 1920s, chickens were raised primarily for their eggs — not their meat. Chicken meat was expensive, not considered very tasty and only available seasonally, as chickens were typically slaughtered in the fall after they were no longer needed for laying eggs.

Antibiotics actually played a major role in turning chickens from primarily egg layers into a meat source, as they allowed chickens to grow much faster than chickens fed a standard antibiotic-free diet.21 As noted by the Cornucopia Institute,22 the price of chicken has also dropped dramatically over the past few decades, making it the cheapest meat available in the U.S. As a result, consumption has doubled since 1970.

Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to mass-produce clean, safe, optimally nutritious foods at rock-bottom prices, chicken included. If it’s a healthy source of protein that you’re looking for, you’re better off leaving all CAFO chicken at the store and opting for another chicken-produced food instead: eggs, particularly organic, pastured varieties.

Eggs, especially the yolks, provide valuable vitamins (A, D, E and K), omega-3 fats and antioxidants. They’re also one of the best sources of choline available. Choline helps keep your cell membranes functioning properly, plays a role in nerve communications, prevents the buildup of homocysteine in your blood (elevated levels are linked to heart disease) and reduces chronic inflammation.

Eggs are also rich in the antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for vision health. And, egg yolks are an excellent source of healthy fat and protein, while providing you with vitamins that many Americans are lacking. Eating egg yolks may even be an ideal way to resolve other common nutrient deficiencies beyond choline, including vitamins A, E and B6, copper, calcium and folate.23

The Cornucopia Institute released an egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if you’re buying your eggs at the supermarket.

However, the best choice is to get to know a local farmer and get your eggs there directly. Likewise, if you choose to eat chicken, finding a local grass fed farmer raising chickens on pasture is the safest, and healthiest, route to go.