A new study says that eating a diet of red meat regularly makes the body more susceptible to a virulent form of intestinal bug that can cause bloody diarrhoea and even death.
Researchers in the United States and Australia said persistently eating red meat appears to prime the body for exposure to this potent form of Escherichia coli (E. coli).
The meat naturally contains sugar molecules called Neu5Gc that accumulate in cells lining the intestines and blood vessels.
"Prior meat eating would set one up for the toxin to bind when it shows up," explained Ajit Varki, a researcher at the University of California at San Diego, one of the study's co-authors.
The Neu5Gc molecule is virtually absent in other foods such as fish, poultry and vegetables and fruits, Varki told AFP in an email exchange.
The investigation, published in the London-based journal Nature, is led by Travis Beddoe of Monash University in Melbourne.
In experiments, the team first tested the affinity of the E. coli bacteria for Neu5Gc using cultured human cells in a lab dish.
"The human samples showed the presence of the Neu5Gc toxin binding sites in the gut and the kidney, the two target organs for the disease," said Varki.
The researchers then confirmed the positive results using genetically modified mice in which the gene which naturally produced Neu5Gc was suppressed.
E. coli is found in the lower intestine of animals and humans. Many of its strains are harmless, but others can cause serious, sometimes fatal health problems.
There are about 75,000 cases of E. coli-related to food poisoning every year in the United States, including an average of 60 fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
Most outbreaks have been traced to undercooked ground beef tainted with faecal matter post-slaughter.
E. coli can also be transmitted through unwashed vegetables grown in farmland irrigated by sewage-contaminated water.