It's also possible for the germs to be transmitted through use of the restroom after handling of contaminated food, said Marion Nestle, a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University.
In their study, Manges and her research colleagues wanted to find out if the same strains of E. coli were present in both meat and in women with urinary tract infections.
They studied 353 samples from Canadian women, ages 18 to 45, who had suspected urinary tract infections. They also examined samples of chicken and honeydew melon from stores and restaurants in Canada.
The researchers found that several strains of E. coli found in the women and in the food were indistinguishable or closely related.
But there's a big caveat. "We haven't demonstrated that this woman ate this piece of chicken meat, and therefore her infection was caused by that piece of chicken," Manges said.
That's a problem, Imperato said. "Unless one has positive evidence, gathered through a thorough history, that someone ate an E. coli-contaminated food, one cannot definitively conclude that any of these foods were the source of their illness."
What to do? As usual, "consumers should be careful to follow standard food-safety procedures when preparing meat or eating undercooked food, including frequent hand-washing," Nestle advised.
The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has more on E. coli.
SOURCES: Amee R. Manges, M.P.H., Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal; Pascal James Imperato, M.D., M.P.H.&T.M., dean and professor, School of Public Health, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, Brook
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