How Your Chicken Dinner Is Creating a Drug-Resistant Superbug That Could Kill You

Is your chicken dinner killing you?

The origin of these newly resistant E. coli has been a mystery — except to a small group of researchers in several countries. They contend there is persuasive evidence that the bacteria are coming from poultry. More precisely, coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which takes in most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year.

Their research in the United States, Canada, and Europe (published most recently this month) has found close genetic matches between resistant E. coli collected from human patients and resistant strains found on chicken or turkey sold in supermarkets or collected from birds being slaughtered. The researchers contend that poultry — especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat — is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right. Touching raw meat that contains the resistant bacteria, or coming into environmental contact with it — say, by eating lettuce that was cross-contaminated — are easy ways to become infected.

Investigators have been examining a possible link between growth promoters, chickens, and human infections since at least 2001, when Manges and others published in the New England Journal of Medicine an analysis of clusters of UTIs in California, Michigan, and Minnesota. The striking thing at the time was that the clusters appeared to be outbreaks caused by very similar E. coli strains that were resistant to the common drug Bactrim. In the United States, one out of every nine women has a UTI every year. If a single small group of E. coli was causing some proportion of the infections, that would be alarming — but it might also offer a clue to defusing the overall epidemic. Initially, though, the researchers had no idea where the strains were coming from.

Maryn McKenna – Maryn McKenna is the author of Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). This story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, non-profit news organization focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health.

Where is the research?

In 2005, University of Minnesota professor of medicine Dr. James R. Johnson published results of two projects in which he analyzed meat bought in local supermarkets during 1999-2000 and 2001-2003. In both cases, he found resistant ExPEC E. coli strains that matched ones from human E. coli infections. Other researchers soon found similar matches in meat–particularly poultry–from across Europe, in Canada, and in additional studies.

In that research, investigators began to sort out two things. They became convinced that the resistance pattern could be traced back to animal antibiotic use, because resistance genes in the bacteria causing human infections matched genes found in bacteria on conventionally raised meat. And they began to understand that E. coli’s complexity would make this new resistance problem a difficult one to solve. The strains that cross to humans via poultry meat “don’t establish themselves as big, successful lineages” of bacteria that would be easy to target, Johnson said. “But collectively they can cause a lot of infections, because there are just so many of them and they’re so diverse.”

Centralized SuperBug repository

There is no national registry for drug-resistant infections, and so no one can say for sure how many resistant UTIs there are. But they have become so common that last year the specialty society for infectious-disease physicians had to revise its recommendations for which drugs to prescribe for cystitis — and many infectious-disease physicians and gynecologists say informally that they see such infections every week.

But the origin of these newly resistant E. coli has been a mystery — except to a small group of researchers in several countries. They contend there is persuasive evidence that the bacteria are coming from poultry. More precisely, coming from poultry raised with the routine use of antibiotics, which takes in most of the 8.6 billion chickens raised for meat in the U.S. each year.

Their research in the United States, Canada, and Europe (published most recently this month, in June, and in March) has found close genetic matches between resistant E. coli collected from human patients and resistant strains found on chicken or turkey sold in supermarkets or collected from birds being slaughtered. The researchers contend that poultry — especially chicken, the low-cost, low-fat protein that Americans eat more than any other meat — is the bridge that allows resistant bacteria to move to humans, taking up residence in the body and sparking infections when conditions are right. Touching raw meat that contains the resistant bacteria, or coming into environmental contact with it — say, by eating lettuce that was cross-contaminated — are easy ways to become infected.

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About CareMan
I am the CareMan, have been for 7 years now. I really do care about YOU and getting YOU back to great, natural health, so long as you have an open mind.

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