Escherichia coli isolates from commercial chicken meat and eggs cause sepsis, meningitis and urinary tract infection in rodent models of human infections.
The zoonotic potential of Escherichia coli from chicken-source food products is important to define for public health purposes. Previously, genotypic and phenotypic screening of E. coli isolates from commercial chicken meat and shell eggs identified some E. coli strains that by molecular criteria resembled human-source extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli (ExPEC). Here, to clarify the zoonotic risk of such chicken-source E. coli, we compared selected E. coli isolates from chicken meat and eggs, stratified by molecularly defined ExPEC status, to human-source ExPEC and to laboratory E. coli for virulence in rodent models of sepsis, meningitis and UTI, and evaluated whether specific bacterial characteristics predict experimental virulence. Multiple chicken-source E. coli resembled human-source ExPEC in their ability to cause one or multiple different ExPEC-associated infections. Swimming ability corresponded with urovirulence, K1 capsule corresponded with ability to cause neonatal meningitis, and biofilm formation in urine corresponded with ability to cause sepsis. In contrast, molecularly defined ExPEC status and individual genotypic traits were uncorrelated with ability to cause sepsis, and neither complement sensitivity nor growth in human urine corresponded with virulence in any infection model. These findings establish that chicken-derived food products contain E. coli strains that, in rodent models of multiple human-associated ExPEC infections, are able to cause disease comparably to human-source E. coli clinical isolates, which suggests that they may pose a significant food safety threat. Further study is needed to define the level of risk they pose to human health, which if appreciable would justify efforts to monitor for and reduce or eliminate them.