Superbug Urinary Tract Infections Traced to Factory Animal Farms

urinary tract infections e coli factory farms

Photo by Larissa Sayer

By Case Adams, Naturopath

Every year some eight million people in the U.S. have urinary tract infections. Of these, about two million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ urinary tract infections and about 23,000 people die from urinary tract related infections, which include kidney and bladder infections.

At least six out of ten women will have a urinary tract infection at some point in their lives, and about one in ten women will have a UTI yearly.

A urinary tract infection may start inconspicuously, but if the infective agent isn’t stopped it can quickly grow into a bladder infection, and then a kidney infection.

Because the kidneys exchange fluids with the bloodstream, infected kidneys can quickly become sepsis – the infection or transportation of bacteria within the blood. Once in the blood, bacteria may infect the liver, the heart and other regions of the body. Research has found that many E. coli colonies will also find a reservoir within the intestines – where they will expand and infect other parts of the body.

Antibiotic resistant E. coli UTIs

One of the major bacteria causing these superbug infections are antibiotic-resistant Escherichia coli (E. coli). Research has found that between 75 percent and 95 percent of all UTIs are due to E. coli infections.

While some antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria will respond to other antibiotics, time is running out because E. coli are becoming resistant to some last ditch antibiotics as well.

Why are E. coli and other UTI infective bacteria becoming increasingly resistant to our antibiotics? Certainly the overuse of antibiotics by modern medical practice is one reason.

But recent research has found another more startling reason for the dramatic growth of antibiotic resistant urinary tract infections: The use of antibiotics in producing meat products.

Meats are primary source of E. coli transmission

The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS) reported in 2010 that more than 75 percent of meats from chicken and turkey were contaminated with E. coli – a majority of which was resistant to multiple antibiotics.

NARMS also reported that 59 percent of ground beef meat and 40 percent of meat products from pork were also infected with E. coli – again with most being multiple antibiotic resistant.

With regard to E. coli strains that can specifically infect the urinary tract, NARMS also found UTI-infectious E. coli in more than 20 percent of retail chicken and turkey meats, over eight percent in pork and more than three percent in ground beef. The rest of the E. coli strains were also considered infectious – but these strains typically infected digestive systems rather than caused UTIs.

While the use of antibiotics in humans is certainly still too high and one of the causes for antibiotic resistant bacteria, meat producing companies are pumping antibiotics into animals at an even higher rate.

Recent research from Denmark’s Statens Serum Institute have confirmed other research findings that the antibiotic-resistant E. coli produced through antibiotic use in animals are finding their way from meat suppliers to people – through kitchens, supermarkets and dinner tables.

The latest study – from the scientists in Denmark – tested 22 different E. coli strains from urinary tract infection patients in different locations. They also drew E. coli from samples of several different meats, including chicken and pork.

The researchers tested nine of the 22 strains and found all were capable of causing severe urinary tract infections, bladder infections and kidney infections.

More significantly, the researchers conducted a genetic profiling of the different E. coli strains, and confirmed that many of the E. coli strains were being transmitted from the meat to the human infections.

The researchers stated:

“The close relationship between community-dwelling human and UTI isolates may indicate a point source spread, e.g. through contaminated meat.”

Tracking the Original Strains

The tracking of the source of these difficult-to-treat urinary tract E. coli infections has drawn researchers from throughout the U.S. as well.

In research headed up by Dr. Lance Price, a professor and microbiologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the most severe E. coli strains were identified as ESBLs – or extended-spectrum β-lactamases. These give the E. coli the ability to combat other bacteria as well as resist more antibiotics.

In 2013, Dr. Price and his associates from the Flagstaff Arizona’s Center for Food Microbiology and Environmental Health tracked down an “epidemic” proportion of a particular E. coli strain type – called the type 131 or ST131 – an ESBL-type E. coli that was apparently present among different UTI infection outbreaks around the world.

In 2012, researchers from Iowa State University traced the plasmids – genetic containers that allow the germ to be antibiotic resistant – back to poultry farms. They concluded:

“These findings suggest that in extraintestinal E. coli, multidrug resistance is most commonly associated with plasmids, and that these plasmids are frequently found among avian-source E. coli from poultry production systems.”

This conclusion was confirmed by researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine, who collected 1,679 UTI-infection E. coli strains from around the world. They also found the genetic (clonotype) identity as matching with the E. coli ST131 type. The researchers also were able to identify this ST131 E. coli strain type among patients with severe urinary tract infections.

Invisible UTI Outbreaks

Completely hidden from public view is the fact that there have been at least 12 outbreaks of severe E. coli UTI infections over the past half century. Nine of these occurred in Europe. Two were reported for the UK in 1988 and 2004, three reported in Spain in 2000, 2006 and 2009, one reported in Demark in 1994, one in Portugal in 2007 and one in Coratia in 2008.

Two outbreaks occurred in the U.S. – reported in 1993 and 2001. And one E. coli UTI outbreak occurred in Canada, reported in 2005.

In most of these outbreaks, researchers found the E. coli of similar strains and they were predominantly resistant to various antibiotics. In the 2001 outbreak, for example, patients reported from California and Michigan – dubbed clonal group A. Nearly half of the infections were resistant to trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole antibiotics – with markers matching the ST131 type.

Sources of Infection

As to whether there is a definite connection between urinary tract infections in women and the meat they eat, researchers from Canada’s McGill University studied a case-control study of 99 women who had urinary tract infections caused by multidrug resistant strains of E. coli.

The research found that frequent chicken consumption increased the risk of a UTI infection by nearly four times (3.7 times) and frequent pork eating increased the risk of UTI infections by between three times (3.2 times) and four times (4.0), depending upon the type of antibiotic-resistant strain of E. coli.

In factory farming practices, chickens, pigs and beef are frequently given antibiotics. Some of the most prevalent include minoglycosides and cephalosporins – which create resistance to those antiobiotics among E. coli bacteria harboring these factory farms.

While the FDA has instituted guidelines for administering antibiotics, these are voluntary, and lack oversight.

Does Organic or Raised without Antibiotics Eliminate the Risk?

One might think organic meat or meat raised without antibiotics will not have these problems – of containing antibiotic-resistant UTI-causing E. coli.

In 2013, Dr. Price and his associates sampled 213 raw chicken meats from 15 different retailers in New York City. They screened the samples for resistance to 12 of the most common antibiotics.

The research tested and compared meats that were labeled organic, kosher, raised without antibiotics, and conventional meats.

The research found that all of the labels contained antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, and the frequency of antibiotic-resistant E. coli in organic and raised without antibiotics was not very different from the conventional chicken meats.

The research found that 55 percent of E. coli strains from conventional chicken were resistant to more than one antibiotic, while 58 percent of E. coli strains from raised without antibiotics were resistant, and 60% from organic and 76% from kosher chicken.

This means that while it would be assumed that E. coli found in organic and raised without antibiotics would have significantly fewer antibiotic-resistant E. coli strains, this was not true. And kosher chicken had the most antibiotic-resistant E. coli strains.

In terms of number of antibiotic drugs, there was a relationship with the use of antibiotics, but here again the difference was not significant. Conventional poultry samples had E. coli with an average resistance of up to three antibiotics, while organic had close to two on average, closely followed by (about 1.5) by raised without antibiotics. In their analysis, the researchers identified the difference as insignificant:

“Strains of E. coli isolated from samples in the raised without antibiotics category tended to be resistant to fewer drugs but the difference was not significant versus conventional and organic which did not differ from each other.”

What this communicates is that all categories of factory farmed meats – with poultry being some of the most risky – are subject to rendering E. coli infections that can exert antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections that may be very difficult to treat.

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Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.” Case connects with the elements by surfing, hiking and being a beach bum.

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