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Flagstaff-based study links E. coli in raw meat to urinary tract infections

raw chicken in a package sitting next to pineapple slices
Amanda Mills/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Some sink area safety tips offered by the Centers for Disease Control include: Thoroughly wash hands prior to food preparation, or eating. Clean cutting boards, knives, and countertops to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria.

Researchers have determined that of the 6 to 8 million urinary tract infections reported in the U.S. each year, a whopping 85% are caused by E. coli bacteria that are mostly already living in our gut. Now, a new study by an Arizona researcher shows for the first time that raw meat is also a significant source of infection-causing E. coli. Lance Price spent a year buying meat from every grocery story in Flagstaff to make the connection. He spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about his findings.

What was the question you wanted to answer?

We were trying to figure out—well, when we looked at the food supply we’d see lots of E. coli, and we were trying to figure out if there was a relationship between the kind of E. coli in the food supply and the kind that can cause urinary tract infections. I was living in Flagstaff at the time…and sometimes I’d think, ‘it’s such a small town, what can I do here?’ but I realized it was actually a perfect town for studying this question, because it’s a manageable size population…and we could go to every grocery store in the city and buy every brand of chicken, turkey, and pork, twice per month… and then we started sequencing the DNA from thousands of E. coli to try to figure out what the relationship was there.

So you were able to match the E. coli that came from patients at the hospital in Flagstaff, to E. coli in meat samples, is that right?

That was the idea. The idea was let’s apply this same model that we’ve used for studying outbreaks in the past…. But it turns out that we’re not dealing with an outbreak here, we’re taking about a massive population of E. coli colonizing 9 billion animals raised in the United States for meat each year, 9 billion with a B. Those are just constantly spilling over from the food supply into the human population. We just didn’t have the tools, we didn’t have the approach to handle this. This study took a long time to complete, because we had to come up with a new way of studying it…. So that’s what we did, we sequenced the genomes, we found these elements, we applied this model, and from that we could say, wow, 8 percent of the urinary tract infections in the Flagstaff population had an 80 percent or better chance of coming from meat.

Wow, okay. And did that number surprise you?

I started this study with the hypothesis that this was happening. I said, it’s a big deal even if it’s 1 percent. That’s a big deal. This is closer to 10 percent, and when you scale up to the United States, we’re talking about 480,000 to 640,000 people getting these food-borne urinary tract infections each year.

For people who are listening to this and thinking, ‘gross,’ what can people do to avoid these infections?

So the thing that people can do is what we ask them to do all the time, wash their hands, and be really careful, be very hands-aware when you’re handling raw meat products…. You’ve got to be aware that those products are likely contaminated, they could pose a risk to you for having a urinary tract infection and other diseases, and so you’ve got to be really careful.

Do you think since the pandemic people are better at taking these kinds of precautions, or do you think E. coli is something still flying under the radar?

I don’t know if it had a lasting effect. People’s meat handling habits probably bounced back to where they were prior to the pandemic. But people now are more aware of this concept of a spillover from animals to people, and that’s what we’re talking about here, the spillover from animal populations, with meat being the vehicle for carrying these bacteria. Hopefully with that new awareness, and now understanding with this study, hopefully they’ll step up their hand hygiene in the kitchen.

Lance Price, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.