Where do bladder infections come from? Back in the ’70s, longitudinal studies of women over time showed that the movement of rectal bacteria into the vaginal area preceded the appearance of the same types of bacteria in the urethra before they were able to infect the bladder. However, it would be another 25 years before genetic fingerprinting techniques were able to confirm this so-called fecal-perineal-urethral theory, indicating that E. coli strains residing in the rectal flora serve as a reservoir for urinary tract infections.
And it would be another 15 years still before we tracked it back another step and figured out where that rectal reservoir of bladder infecting E. coli was coming from—chicken. Researchers were able to capture these extraintestinal (meaning outside of the gut), pathogenic, disease-causing E. coli straight from the slaughterhouse, to the meat, to the urine specimens obtained from infected women. We now have “proof of a direct link between farm animals, meat, and bladder infections,” solid evidence that urinary tract infections can be a zoonosis (an animal-to-human disease). Millions of women are infected with bladder infections every year, at a cost of more than a billion dollars.
Even worse, researchers have detected multidrug resistant strains of E. coli in chicken meat resistant to some of our most powerful antibiotics.
The best way to prevent bladder infections is the same way we can prevent all types of infections, by not getting infected in the first place. It’s not in all meat equally—beef and pork, for example, appear significantly less likely to harbor bladder-infecting strains than chicken.
Can’t one just use a meat thermometer and cook the chicken thoroughly? We’ve known for 36 years that it’s not always the meat, but the cross-contamination, that causes the infection. If you give people frozen chickens naturally contaminated with antibiotic resistant E. coli and let people prepare and cook it in their own kitchen as they normally would, the bacteria ends up in their rectum even if they don’t actually consume the meat. That’s how they know it was cross-contamination, because the jump happened after the animal was prepared but before it was eaten. In one study five different strains of antibiotic resistant E. coli jumped from the chicken to the volunteer.
So not only did it not matter how well the chicken was cooked, it didn’t even matter if one eats any! It was the bringing of the contaminated carcass into the home and handling it. Within days, the drug resistant chicken bacteria had multiplied to the point of becoming a major part of the person’s fecal flora. If you check out my 6-min video Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections, you can see all this drug resistant bacteria colonizing this person’s colon, yet the person hadn’t taken any antibiotics—it’s the chickens who were given the drugs. That’s why the industry shouldn’t be routinely feeding chickens antibiotics by the millions of pounds a year. It can end up selecting for and amplifying superbugs that may end up in our bodies.
More on the threat of feeding antibiotics to farm animals by the ton in:
What if we’re really careful in the kitchen, though? The pivotal study in this area was entitled “The Effectiveness of Hygiene Procedures for Prevention of Cross-Contamination from Chicken Carcasses in the Domestic Kitchen.” Researchers went into five dozen homes, gave each family a chicken, and asked them to cook it. I expected to read that they inoculated the carcass with a specific number of bacteria to ensure everyone got a contaminated bird, but no. They realized that fecal contamination of chicken carcasses was so common that they just went to the store and bought any random chicken.
After the participants were done cooking it, there was bacteria from chicken feces (Salmonella and Campylobacter–both serious human pathogens) all over the kitchen—on the cutting board, the utensils, on their hands, on the fridge handle, on the cupboard, the oven handle doorknob. Obviously people don’t know what proper handling and disinfection protocols entail. So the researchers took another group of people and gave them specific instructions. After they cooked the chicken they had to wash everything with hot water and detergent. They were told specifically to wash the cutting board, knobs on the sink, the faucet, the fridge, the doorknobs—everything. And the researchers still found pathogenic fecal bacteria all over.
Fine. Last group. This time they were going to insist that people bleach everything. The dishcloth used to wipe up was to be immersed in bleach disinfectant. Then they sprayed the bleach on all kitchen surfaces and let it sit there for 5 minutes. And… they still found Campylobacter and Salmonella on some utensils, a dishcloth, the counter around the sink, and the cupboard. Definitely better, but unless our kitchen is like some biohazard lab, the only way to guarantee we’re not going to leave infection around the kitchen is to not bring it into the house in the first place.
The good news is that if we eat chicken once, we’re not colonized for life. In the study I profile in Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections, the chicken bacteria only seemed to last about 10 days in peoples' guts before our good bacteria could muscle it out of the way. The problem is that people tend to eat chicken more than once every ten days, so they may be constantly re-introducing these chicken pathogens into their system. For example, a study found that if people are fed only sterilized meat that’s been boiled for an hour, within 3 weeks there’s a 500 fold drop in the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria passing through their bodies.
I originally explored this topic in Chicken Out of UTIs, but decided I needed to take a much deeper dive, especially in light of the cross-contamination issue, which I also touched on in Food Poisoning Bacteria Cross-Contamination and Fecal Contamination of Sushi.
Other videos about diseases that one might not initially associate with food include:
More on urinary tract health in:
- Asparagus Pee
- Prostate vs. Plants
- Cheese Mites and Maggots
- Prostate vs. a Plant-Based Diet
- Treating Kidney Failure Through Diet
- Some Prostates Are Larger than Others
- Preventing Kidney Failure Through Diet
- Raw Broccoli and Bladder Cancer Survival
What if you already have a urinary tract infection? See Can Cranberry Juice Treat Bladder Infections?
-Michael Greger, M.D.
Image credit: epSos.de / Flickr