New study links untested strain of E. coli in chicken to human illness, USDA Needs to Act

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Philadelphia, PA– A new report from the George Washington University Milken Institute of Public Health shows that a strain of E. coli in poultry that is rarely tested for could be linked to people contracting urinary tract infections. This gap requires a reevaluation of what strains require investigation to catch dangerous pathogens, according to experts and advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

“Now we can quit debating about whether or not people can get UTIs and other serious infections from the E. coli that contaminate our poultry products and start working together to eliminate the problem,” said the leader of the GW team, Professor Lance Price. 

Current food safety inspections focus almost exclusively on multidrug-resistant strains of E. coli. However, the often overlooked strain, ST131-H22, which has been known to cause cause bladder, kidney and blood infections in people, could link poultry to UTIs. Researchers found this strain in 80% of meat samples collected over the course of a year from major grocery stores in Flagstaff, Arizona and from 72% of patients with UTIs locally. Avanced genomic analysis revealed the E. coli found in the human samples was identical to that in poultry. 

“This should be cause enough for the USDA to reevaluate which pathogens they test for and come up with a strategy to monitor and deal with them to keep people from getting sick. We need to look into how to identify these evolving risks and make sure our testing techniques catch up to the growing risk of infection” said Viveth Karthikeyan, U.S PIRG Consumer Watchdog Associate.

In a statement, Price concluded that “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.” 

While this strain of E. coli is only responsible for 0.5 percent of UTIs, Price added that “if you scale that to the national estimates, ST131-H22 could be causing 30,000 to 40,000 UTIs in the US each year.” There could also be other strains triggering UTIs which warrants further study. 

The research team is working on another paper that will expand to other strains of E. Coli beyond ST131 to find out exactly how UTIs are affected by foodborne contamination.