Turtle-salmonella link still an issue
by Nick Thomas
Most days, Sonny White can be forgiven for thinking much of the world is against him. For over a decade, the 52-year-old Louisiana turtle farmer has been struggling to make a living while the U.S. government, animal rights groups, and environmentalists have waged war on his profession. White’s troubles – and those of some 100 other turtle farmers in the Southeast – can be traced back more than 30 years, when the FDA banned the domestic sale of small turtles which were known to carry and transmit Salmonella. Prior to 1975, millions of small turtles were sold in U.S. pet stores.
As the domestic pet turtle market evaporated, most turtle farmers turned to overseas markets where the animals are eaten or raised as pets. But when turtle prices plummeted a few years ago, due to competition from farms in China, so did the profits. “We need help,” a desperate-sounding White said by phone from his farm near Jonesville, La. “I’ve had three years of losses. Every time I sell a turtle, it’s like throwing away a nickel.” With 400,000 turtle eggs hatching on his farm each year, that’s more than just pocket change.
Turtle farmers like White have been lobbying Congress for years and were hopeful that Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s amendment to the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 would overturn the ban on turtle sales. But the amendment was removed before the bill became law in May that year. A similar bill in the House never reached the floor for a vote.
The ban was originally enacted because the moist environment of a home aquarium is an ideal breeding ground for Salmonella, which turtles naturally possess in their gut and shed into the water. Many kids were getting sick from handling the turtles, touching the water or – as little kids are inclined to do – putting the small turtles in their mouths. Noone disputes the high incidence of Salmonella in turtles prior to 1975. But, says White, the problem has been fixed. “Our industry has invested huge sums of money to improve sanitary conditions at turtle farms. We have eradicated 98% of the Salmonella in turtles, which is better than almost any other animal or food industry.”
But that figure still doesn’t convince Robert Tauxe that the U.S. pet market should again be flooded with tiny turtles. “Imagine shipping a box of 300 turtles,” suggests Tauxe, who is deputy director of the division of food-borne bacterial and mycotic diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Even if only 2% had Salmonella, that might easily rise to 100% by the end of shipment.”
Wildlife veterinarian Mark Mitchell is a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has demonstrated that antimicrobial chemicals such as Baquacil (commonly used in residential swimming pools) can reduce Salmonella in turtle tank water. Mitchell’s work has been reported in peer-reviewed scientific journals, where he has shown that chemicals can reduce (but not totally eliminate) Salmonella recolonization in laboratory turtles. But he also found that Bacquacil had “no effect on the colonization of Salmonella in the gastrointestinal tract of the hatchlings.”
Nevertheless, Mitchell favors lifting the ban. In addition to public education, and perhaps requiring some sort of reptile ownership registration, he believes the turtles now raised on farms – if fed on commercial Salmonella-free turtle chow and treated in home tanks with chemicals – can be safe. “Will it be perfect in all cases?” asks Mitchell. “No, but the same can be said for health risks associated with domestic pets or for the foods that we eat.”
Past outbreaks of Salmonella in human food, such as the occurrence in U.S. tomatoes in 2008, support Mitchell’s comment and illustrate that it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of Salmonella in the food industry. What concerns many public health officials, however, is the risk turtles pose to small children. Helene Andrews-Polymenis, an assistant professor in the department of microbial and molecular pathogenesis at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, studies Salmonella issues around the country and did not want to see the ban reversed. “Kids under five are highly susceptible to complications from Salmonella,” said Andrews-Polymenis. “If they don’t have a turtle, they can’t get sick from it! It’s a totally avoidable public health problem.”
The prospect of overturning the ban also concerned animal rights groups and environmentalists. Red-eared slider turtles, the breed most commonly raised on farms, have found their way into regions of the U.S. where they compete with native turtle species. The former House bill attempted to address this concern by requiring sellers to inform buyers that turtles should not be abandoned. The bill would have also requiring sellers to warn buyers of the Salmonella risk and to explain to buyers how to treat turtles to reduce the risk. Nevertheless, the bill’s opponents were convinced overturning the ban would have led to an epidemic of turtle-related Salmonella cases.
Meanwhile, Sonny White still hopes Congress can be convinced to eventually end the ban, and bring much needed money into his state, which is still reeling from the economic effects of Hurricane Katrina and the general sluggish economy. “It would bring in $300 million, and we have 100% support from Louisiana Congressmen,” says White. “We’re ready for this industry to open up again.”
Robert Tauxe, on the other hand, was pleased the turtle ban will remain in effect. “We think the ban is one of the most successful public health measures to control Salmonella infection.”