Bacteria From Meat May Cause Nearly Half a Million UTIs in the US Every Year

  • Researchers have linked more than half a million UTIs each year to strains of E. coli found in meat products in the United States.
  • The strains of E. coli discovered were predominately in raw chicken and turkey products.
  • Experts recommend thorough handwashing and prioritized gut health to help individuals counteract UTI risk.

Researchers have linked more than half a million urinary tract infections (UTIs) a year to strains of E. coli found in meat sold at grocery stores in the United States.

The portion of total UTI cases this accounts for is still small—about 8%—but the finding sheds light on a potentially overlooked source of infections. 

“The most important thing is to make sure that you are very aware of washing your hands and the surfaces in your kitchen when you bring these products into your house,” said the new study’s co-author, Lance B. Price, PhD, a professor of environmental and occupational health and co-director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health in Washington, DC. 

Woman shopping for ground meat

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Cross Contamination and Increased UTI Risk

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only seriously monitors two strains of E. coli in meat, both of which cause gastrointestinal illness, but the new study suggests raw meat sold in the U.S. may harbor other potentially important strains of E. coli

The researchers used data collected over a year in nine grocery stores in Flagstaff, Arizona. Cultures of microorganisms found in all available brands of raw chicken, turkey, and pork were taken from every store every two weeks.

Dr. Price and his team found genetic similarities between E. coli found in meat (mostly poultry) and E. coli that causes some UTIs in humans. They estimated that around 8% of UTI cases in the U.S. appear to be traced back to foodborne zoonotic strains—meaning, pathogens that can pass from animals to humans—of E. coli found predominantly in raw chicken and turkey. They included strains that had at least an 80% probability of passing from animals to humans and causing UTIs. 

According to Dr. Price, these strains of E. coli won’t survive being cooked, so eating fully cooked meat that hasn’t come into contact with any surfaces contaminated with raw meat should not cause UTIs. Instead, it’s an issue of people handling raw meat and not properly cleaning their hands and other surfaces after, or improperly disposing of packaging that held raw meat.

“Just like with everything, it’s important to wash your hands before and after cooking and make sure the surfaces are clean and of course understand that eating raw meat carries with it risks,” said Nissrine Nakib, MD, an associate professor of urology at the University of Minnesota Medical School and director of the Pelvic Floor Program, who was not involved in the new study.

Being mindful in the kitchen can drastically reduce your risk of spreading E. coli

“While your hands are contaminated, you need to think about how you’re going to pump that soap, turn on that faucet, without contaminating it,” noted Dr. Price. “When you are preparing ground products, it’s even riskier because one of the things we do with ground products is we make patties, which means we handle them a lot.”

The association between E. coli found in raw meat and UTIs is not novel. A 2012 study by Canadian researchers, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, pulled from previous research that found strains of UTI-causing E. coli in poultry. In the follow-up study, they found that pork and beef were far less likely to contain UTI-causing bacteria than turkey and chicken.

Dr. Nakib also noted that if it’s true that E. coli from meat is causing some UTIs, it is not the only, or the most common, way people get these infections.

“There are so many other causes, like not emptying the bladder and having stains of urine, thus allowing bacteria to overgrow. There could be contamination for the backside if people wipe incorrectly or have bowel issues,” she explained. People also commonly get UTIs from having sex

Additionally, Dr. Nakib noted that some people are more susceptible to UTIs. These include people with vaginas, those who are immunocompromised, as well as diabetics who have poor blood sugar control. Being post-menopausal can also put people at higher risk for UTIs because menopause causes a drop in estrogen, which decreases the protective good bacteria in the vagina that can fight off infection-causing bacteria.

Types of E. coli and the Impact of Bacteria

Dr. Price also emphasized that E. coli is a unique type of bacteria that surrounds us all the time. Although different strains are all housed under the same umbrella, E. coli strains are incredibly diverse. 

“There are lots of E. coli that are just hanging out in our gut and they don’t have a lot of potential to cause disease,” he said. “Some can cause diarrhea, and even in that group, there are lots of different methods by which they cause diarrhea.”

It’s another group entirely that causes UTIs.

“The ones [E. coli] that cause UTIs are a fairly diverse group that has special features. They can cloak themselves from the immune system, they can hold onto cells in the urethra, even under force such as urination,” Dr. Price said.

E. coli is estimated to cause more than 75% of UTIs. Although the new study found that contamination from E. coli found in some meat could be a factor, by far the biggest source of E. coli every person interacts with comes from the people they live with or interact closely with, explained Dr. Price.

Dr. Nakib also noted the frequency of bacteria contact most people already experience: “We have more bacterial cells on us than we have human cells. It’s all about the balance.”

Keeping a healthy cohort of good bacteria in the gut can help the body naturally fight off infection-causing bacteria, including E. coli, she said. 

“I truly believe that the answer is working on regulating the balance of good bacteria to bad, rather than trying to eliminate the bad bacteria,” Dr. Nakib stated. She recommends eating fermented foods such as yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut to build up the good microbes in your gut. 

Antibiotics are the standard course of treatment for UTIs, though drinking a lot of water or taking cranberry supplements can help flush out the bacteria that cause the infections, Dr. Nakib added. 

Cranberry supplements that have high amounts of a flavonoid called proanthocyanidins (PACs) may prevent the “fingers” of the E. coli bacteria from attaching to cells in the body, “but this evidence is still being debated,” said Dr. Nakib.

“Regardless it can be used for prevention but not typically treatment. If your body can’t fight the bacteria in the bladder then it can get out of hand and potentially cause more serious kidney infection or even blood infection and sepsis.”

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  2. Bergeron CR, Prussing C, Boerlin P, et al. Chicken as reservoir for extraintestinal pathogenic Escherichia coli in humans, Canada. Emerg Infect Dis. 2012;18(3):415-421. doi:10.3201/eid1803.111099

  3. Zagaglia C, Ammendolia MG, Maurizi L, Nicoletti M, Longhi C. Urinary tract infections caused by uropathogenic Escherichia coli strains—new strategies for an old pathogen. Microorganisms. 2022;10(7):1425. doi:10.3390/microorganisms10071425

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