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For the study, investigators analyzed chicken, turkey and pork purchased from every major grocery chain in Flagstaff, Ariz. They also collected and analyzed urine and blood samples taken from patients at Flagstaff Medical Center.
E. coli was found in about 80 percent of the nearly 2,500 meat samples and in 72 percent of the urine and blood samples from patients who tested positive for infection, the study authors said. E. coli ST131 was the most common type infecting people and was also present in the meat samples.
In the next phase of the research, the investigators discovered that almost all of the E. coli ST131 on the poultry products was a strain called ST131-H22, and that it carried genes that help E. coli thrive in birds. This same strain was also found to be causing UTIs in people.
The findings indicate that E. coli in fresh poultry can be passed to people, causing UTIs. While many people believe these common infections are a minor problem, invasive UTIs that involve the kidneys or blood can be life-threatening, the study authors said.
More than 80 percent of UTIs are caused by E. coli, but only a few strains cause the most serious infections. That includes E. coli ST131, which kills thousands of people in the United States each year, according to the researchers.
"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 study leader Lance Price. He is director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
These findings highlight the importance of cooking poultry thoroughly and handling it carefully in the kitchen, said Price, who noted that poultry products are not routinely tested for E. coli strains that can cause UTIs.
"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 in a university news release. "This is not an easy question to answer, but an extremely important one."
The study was published online Aug. 28 in the journal mBio.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: George Washington University, news release, Aug. 28, 2018