How Avoiding Chicken Could Prevent Bladder Infections

How Avoiding Chicken Could Prevent Bladder Infections
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Where do bladder infections come from? Back in the ’70s, longitudinal studies of women over time showed that the movement of rectal bacteria into the vaginal area preceded the appearance of the same types of bacteria in the urethra before they were able to infect the bladder. However, it would be another 25 years before genetic fingerprinting techniques were able to confirm this so-called fecal-perineal-urethral theory, indicating that E. coli strains residing in the rectal flora serve as a reservoir for urinary tract infections.

And it would be another 15 years still before we tracked it back another step and figured out where that rectal reservoir of bladder infecting E. coli was coming from—chicken. Researchers were able to capture these extraintestinal (meaning outside of the gut), pathogenic, disease-causing E. coli straight from the slaughterhouse, to the meat, to the urine specimens obtained from infected women. We now have “proof of a direct link between farm animals, meat, and bladder infections,” solid evidence that urinary tract infections can be a zoonosis (an animal-to-human disease). Millions of women are infected with bladder infections every year, at a cost of more than a billion dollars.

Even worse, researchers have detected multidrug resistant strains of E. coli in chicken meat resistant to some of our most powerful antibiotics.

The best way to prevent bladder infections is the same way we can prevent all types of infections, by not getting infected in the first place. It’s not in all meat equally—beef and pork, for example, appear significantly less likely to harbor bladder-infecting strains than chicken.

Can’t one just use a meat thermometer and cook the chicken thoroughly? We’ve known for 36 years that it’s not always the meat, but the cross-contamination, that causes the infection. If you give people frozen chickens naturally contaminated with antibiotic resistant E. coli and let people prepare and cook it in their own kitchen as they normally would, the bacteria ends up in their rectum even if they don’t actually consume the meat. That’s how they know it was cross-contamination, because the jump happened after the animal was prepared but before it was eaten. In one study five different strains of antibiotic resistant E. coli jumped from the chicken to the volunteer.

So not only did it not matter how well the chicken was cooked, it didn’t even matter if one eats any! It was the bringing of the contaminated carcass into the home and handling it. Within days, the drug resistant chicken bacteria had multiplied to the point of becoming a major part of the person’s fecal flora. If you check out my 6-min video Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections, you can see all this drug resistant bacteria colonizing this person’s colon, yet the person hadn’t taken any antibiotics—it’s the chickens who were given the drugs. That’s why the industry shouldn’t be routinely feeding chickens antibiotics by the millions of pounds a year. It can end up selecting for and amplifying superbugs that may end up in our bodies.

More on the threat of feeding antibiotics to farm animals by the ton in:

What if we’re really careful in the kitchen, though? The pivotal study in this area was entitled “The Effectiveness of Hygiene Procedures for Prevention of Cross-Contamination from Chicken Carcasses in the Domestic Kitchen.” Researchers went into five dozen homes, gave each family a chicken, and asked them to cook it. I expected to read that they inoculated the carcass with a specific number of bacteria to ensure everyone got a contaminated bird, but no. They realized that fecal contamination of chicken carcasses was so common that they just went to the store and bought any random chicken.

After the participants were done cooking it, there was bacteria from chicken feces (Salmonella and Campylobacter–both serious human pathogens) all over the kitchen—on the cutting board, the utensils, on their hands, on the fridge handle, on the cupboard,  the oven handle doorknob. Obviously people don’t know what proper handling and disinfection protocols entail. So the researchers took another group of people and gave them specific instructions. After they cooked the chicken they had to wash everything with hot water and detergent. They were told specifically to wash the cutting board, knobs on the sink, the faucet, the fridge, the doorknobs—everything. And the researchers still found pathogenic fecal bacteria all over.

Fine. Last group. This time they were going to insist that people bleach everything. The dishcloth used to wipe up was to be immersed in bleach disinfectant. Then they sprayed the bleach on all kitchen surfaces and let it sit there for 5 minutes. And… they still found Campylobacter and Salmonella on some utensils, a dishcloth, the counter around the sink, and the cupboard. Definitely better, but unless our kitchen is like some biohazard lab, the only way to guarantee we’re not going to leave infection around the kitchen is to not bring it into the house in the first place.

The good news is that if we eat chicken once, we’re not colonized for life. In the study I profile in Avoiding Chicken To Avoid Bladder Infections, the chicken bacteria only seemed to last about 10 days in peoples’ guts before our good bacteria could muscle it out of the way. The problem is that people tend to eat chicken more than once every ten days, so they may be constantly re-introducing these chicken pathogens into their system. For example, a study found that if people are fed only sterilized meat that’s been boiled for an hour, within 3 weeks there’s a 500 fold drop in the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria passing through their bodies.

I originally explored this topic in Chicken Out of UTIs, but decided I needed to take a much deeper dive, especially in light of the cross-contamination issue, which I also  touched on in Food Poisoning Bacteria Cross-Contamination and Fecal Contamination of Sushi.

Other videos about diseases that one might not initially associate with food include:

More on urinary tract health in:

What if you already have a urinary tract infection? See Can Cranberry Juice Treat Bladder Infections?

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image credit: epSos.de / Flickr

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  • Beetsbeansbutts

    The idea of spreading food pathogens all over the home by bringing a chicken into the home are convincing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they cause disease.

    Can we really say that by bringing a dead chicken into the home you are putting your family and yourself at risk even if you don’t eat it? It would be nice to compare the UTI/ food poisoning incidence in vegans who live with vegans, versus vegans who live with omnivores.

    • Broccoli

      Yes, any person is at risk. cross-contamination is important… touch there here there…

  • Steph M.

    I was wondering the same thing as the last poster. Are vegans who visit omnivores at risk for UTIs after touching things in the kitchen within 10 days of the omnivore handling a dead chicken?

    • Thea

      Steph M. : I can’t answer your direction question (because I don’t know), but I have some “food for thought” for you: I believe we have another video on NutritionFacts where we learned that there were some Orthodox Jews (who never ate pork and never brought it into their homes) got personally contaminated with ___ (I can’t remember what they got sick with.) The people who looked into this problem found out that while the family did not eat pork, the person that they hired to clean house and cook their food DID eat pork and was the source of their contamination.

      This doesn’t directly answer your question about chicken, but it does seem to me an reasonable assumption that the risk is there given the story I relayed above.

      (Sorry, I don’t have a link to that particular video at hand. Maybe someone can find it for me.)

      NOTE: I’m not an expert. I’m just sharing my opinion/thoughts.

      • Ana N

        My gosh Thea this is terrifying! My room mate is an omnivore. The thought of inadvertently coming in contact with all those drug resistant bacteria is stomach turning! I usually wipe the counter and refrigerator handles with an antibacterial spray (that claims to be effective on E Coli). There’s nothing I can do about it now! I’ll have to wait for a year to move out. Sigh

        • Thea

          Ana: I understand your feelings as I share them to a degree. It is depressing to work hard to try to make oneself healthy just to know that there is so much that others can do to sabotage us.

          That said, here’s what I tell myself in order to maintain perspective: Most of us cannot fully avoid this kind of cross contamination without becoming hermits. (Is there a vegan commune around somewhere?) In America, literally 95% of the people surrounding us eat meat. While it may not be healthy to hang out with those people in terms of bladder infections, etc, it is also not healthy for us to focus on this this issue to the point of losing social contacts and becoming obsessed. The risk of hanging out with such people and living in the real world needs to be put into perspective.

          Plus, if you invite such people into your home and get out there into restaurants that may not be all vegan, etc, you are acting as a role model, working to change people’s future opinions and behavior. VRG (Vegetarian Resource Group) has been conducting careful, statistically valid polls for years. One of the questions VRG asks is how many people in America are vegetarian or vegan. (Which is defined for them rather than letting people self-label.) The numbers just keep going up and up! What you get by not letting this information get to you too much is knowing that you help change the world for the better.

          I know, sounds like delusions of grandeur, but I think it is a good perspective. Change can starts small, with just one person.

          Just some thoughts for you. I hope you will get a better living situation when the year is out! Despite what I wrote above, I do also believe in the helpfulness of hanging out with (living with) people who “get it” when it comes to eating animals. Good luck.

          • Ana N

            Thanks Thea :)

  • Broccoli

    “cross-contamination” and not eating any carcass. It is really obvious. A person takes out the dead raw carcass out of the bag, their liquids drips on to table. Person’s hand is contaminated, they touch the faucet’s knob to wash hands, knob is contaminated, they turn off the knob, their hands are contaminated again… and then they rub their face or touch other surfaces. They are contaminated… and the list goes on.

    “cross-contamination” is main.

  • Jack

    Apparently, you don’t need to bring a chicken into your own house to get infected.

    After reading this, I’m reluctant to eat at an omnivore’s house, I hesitate to even invite them over to our house. They may have contaminated their clothes, shoes, body, etc., or are just shedding E. Coli.

    And as if there weren’t enough reasons to not eat at restaurants, here’s another. So if a restaurant has chicken on their menu, it looks like it’s a sure bet they’ll be serving us Campylobacter and Salmonella.

    And maybe the chef or waitress/waiter will contribute a free side of E. Coli?

    • Thea

      Jack: Please see my reply to “Ana” above. I understand your reaction, but I think the cons outweigh the benefits when we cut ourselves off from family and friends. That’s just my 2 cents. You may weigh the pros and cons differently. I just wanted to share my thoughts.

      re: chef or waitress…
      Hee, hee. I wonder how much that would continue if there was a fine every time it was caught. They could pay *us* to eat their food.

  • Juliann

    To the women/girls: How about asking how women “wipe” themselves after going to the toilet? My mother taught me 84 years ago and her mother and so on. Girls NEVER wipe themselves back to front. ALWAYS front to back. I even told a fellow employee this because she had one infection after another and when I mentioned it she was astounded. She never heard of it and after clearing up the last infection she did not missing work again. Might not this simple old fashioned advice have a lot to do with transferring gut germs to the vagina? Simple to try.

  • therealjeaniebeanie

    This is fascinating, but not an argument to stop eating chicken. It’s an argument to stop eating factory-farm chicken, and to stop routinely feeding antibiotics to chickens. I keep chickens, and I handle them, and their poop, daily. I have only had a UTI once in my life, and it was close to 20 years ago, long before I started keeping chickens. I am healthy as can be at 56, never get sick and would never take antibiotics unless it were a matter of life and death. I took tetracycline for years as a teenager to combat acne, and it gave me health problems for years. Well, no more. I eat pastured meats and eggs, animal fat, vegetables, lots of fermented veggies, fruits, nuts, white rice, chocolate, and, as I said, I never get sick anymore. I won’t be taking your advice to stay away from chickens.

  • infection free

    I quit eating beef and pork two decades ago. the reason was severe bladder infections. From the day I stopped eating these two types of meat i became bladder infection free. I eat chicken often and have never had a bladder infection from poultry. This sounds to me like the beef and pork industry trying to discredit the poultry industry and steal their sales. So if I was fighting bladder infections since I was a teenager then in my forties stopped eating the said meat and became bladder infection free then why is it your report tells me that I am wrong? The proof is in the meat and my bladder.