Bacteria in food may be a culprit in some urinary tract infections

“We think some of the bacteria that cause UTIs are coming from animal foods,” says Lee Riley, chair of the division of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley.

For nearly two decades, Riley and others have found links between bacterial strains in animal foods—mostly poultry—and those that cause UTIs.

How do bacteria from animals reach your urinary tract?

First, people may touch kitchen counters, utensils, or their hands after touching raw poultry or meat, and the bacteria end up on salad or other raw foods.

When people ingest those bugs, “the bacteria transiently colonize the intestine,” says Riley. “In some people, they make their way out and cause a UTI.”

Some of his evidence: “We looked at the genetic fingerprints of E. coli in urine samples from Berkeley students with a UTI. At the same time, we collected meat and poultry samples from the supermarkets around Berkeley. Twelve of the 61 distinct genetic fingerprints of E. coli from the UTI cases were also found in the meat or poultry samples.”

Those studies don’t prove that bacteria from meat is causing the UTIs, but the evidence is troubling.

“Based on our data, 20 percent of UTIs in Berkeley may have an animal food origin,” says Riley. “If that’s true, it’s a major public health issue.”

But the government doesn’t keep tabs on UTIs or the bacteria that cause them.

“The CDC already tracks other foodborne pathogens,” Riley notes. “Why not include UTIs? Then we could learn more about the disease, and if it’s truly associated with food.”

Unfortunately, UTIs are not always easy to treat with a round of antibiotics.

“We’re seeing progressive increases in drug-resistant UTIs,” says Riley.

And, again, food may be a source. A 2018 study identified a strain of antibiotic-resistant E. coli both in urine samples from people with UTIs and in meat samples from nearby grocery stores.

The bottom line

Keep a separate cutting board for raw meat, poultry, and seafood. After you handle them, wash your hands and utensils thoroughly. “And look for meat raised without antibiotics, which may minimize your exposure to drug-resistant bacteria,” says Riley.

Photo: Anna/

Subscribe to Nutrition Action

Live better and longer with Nutrition Action. We dig into the science, name names, and remain strictly objective.

Subscribe now