Could your recurring UTIs be tied to the chicken you're eating?

January 17, 2018 Kaitlyn Matousek


By some estimates, up to 10% of UTIs are caused by poultry-originated bacteria.

As the poultry industry grows, so does the number of antibiotics used to raise the animals. This cost-cutting practice produces a high number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—leading to an increase in foodborne UTIs. 

In the beginning of the 20th century, over 50% of Americans were either farmers or lived in rural communities. With a push towards efficiency and production, farms grew bigger and bigger. Today, the typical broiler chicken comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year. The vast majority of these large-scale farms pump their chickens with antibiotics to fatten them up quickly and to prevent diseases from spreading in such close proximity.

Approximately 15,400 tons of antibiotics are used a year in America—nearly 80% of which go to farmers, with chicken farmers using the most antibiotics compared to cattle or pig farmers. The antibiotics are mainly used to fatten up the chickens as fast as possible with only a small percentage of the drugs used to cure illnesses. The chicken we eat today can achieve a 5-pound market weight in five weeks. Forty years ago, it took 10 weeks to achieve a 4-pound market weight. With antibiotics, the chickens are growing fatter and faster than ever before but this improvement in efficiency comes with hefty environmental and health costs.

For instance, one of the byproducts of industrial-scale meat production is massive amounts of manure, which has a severe environmental impact. Most chicken manure is spread on open fields. If done incorrectly, though, rain washes the manure into streams and rivers, contaminating waterways.

Chicken production is creating another large-scale scary situation—antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Farmers administer antibiotics to chickens through their food and water. Bacteria in the chickens’ gut develop antibiotic resistance over time, and when humans eat the meat they are at risk of developing not only antibiotic-resistant gastrointestinal infections but also urinary tract infections (UTIs).

The antibiotic-resistant bacteria can travel out of our gut and into our urinary tract. If one of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria result in a UTI, it came be extremely difficult to treat since these bacteria are resistant to most common antibiotics.

If the antibiotics prescribed to treat a UTI were ineffective, it could mean that those frequent recurring UTIs might actually be the same UTI that never went away in the first place. This is particularly dangerous because untreated UTIs can lead to kidney infections and even blood infections which carry much more serious health effects.

If you still want to enjoy that chicken sandwich without the fear of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, look for labels like “Raised Without Antibiotics” or “No Antibiotics Ever”. If you want to become better informed on the issue, check out the book “Big Chicken” by  Maryn McKenna It delves much deeper into the harmful effects of large-scale feeding operations, or listen to this segment on Fresh Air, featuring Maryn McKenna.

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