WASHINGTON—Gastrointestinal upset isn’t the only risk from a strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli) found in retail chicken and turkey products.

A study funded by the VA’s Office of Research and Development at Medical Research Service, the United States Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health suggested that those pathogens might be causing a range of infections.

The study, published in the American Society for Microbiology’s open access journal mBio, provides evidence that E. coli in fresh poultry products can be transmitted to humans, leading to bladder infections and other serious conditions.1

George Washington University-led researchers conducted a one-year longitudinal study where they analyzed retail chicken, turkey and pork purchased from every major grocery chain in Flagstaff, AZ. During the same year, the team also collected and analyzed urine and blood isolates taken from patients seen at Flagstaff Medical Center, the only major hospital in the area.

Resulted indicated that E. coli was in nearly 80% of the 2,452 meat samples and was in 72% of the positive urine and blood cultures from patients.

To help determine whether the pathogen was acquired from poultry, researchers studied the genome of E. coli ST131, the most common type affecting humans and also on meat samples. Results were that almost all of the E. coli ST131 on the poultry products belonged to the ST131-H22 strain and carried genes that help E. coli thrive in birds. This same poultry-adapted strain was also found to be causing urinary tract infections in humans.

“In the past, we could say that E. coli from people and poultry were related to one another, but with this study, we can more confidently say that the E. coli went from poultry to people and not vice versa,” said Lance B. Price, PhD, of GW’s Miliken Institute School of Public Health. “We are now working to measure what proportion of UTIs might be caused by foodborne E. coli by looking at all E. coli strains, not only ST131,” Price said. “This is not an easy question to answer but an extremely important one.”

“This particular E. coli strain appears capable of thriving in poultry and causing disease in people,” added first author Cindy Liu, MD, MPH, PhD, first author of the paper and chief medical officer at ARAC. “Poultry products could be an important vehicle for bacteria that can cause diseases other than diarrhea.”

1. Liu CM, Stegger M, Aziz M, Johnson TJ, Waits K, Nordstrom L, Gauld L, Weaver
B, Rolland D, Statham S, Horwinski J, Sariya S, Davis GS, Sokurenko E, Keim P, Johnson JR, Price LB. Escherichia coli ST131-H22 as a Foodborne Uropathogen. MBio. 2018 Aug 28;9(4). pii: e00470-18. doi: 10.1128/mBio.00470-18. PubMed PMID: 30154256; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC6113624.