Salmonella and turtles and me

Growing up in late-1960s suburbia, my parents thought dogs should run on farms like their dogs had, and cats were a nuisance.

So I had a turtle.

Turtles were inexpensive, popular, and low maintenance, with an array of groovy pre-molded plastic housing designs to choose from. Invariably they would escape, only to be found days later behind the couch along with the skeleton of the class bunny my younger sister brought home from kindergarten one weekend.

But eventually, replacement turtles became harder to come by. Reports started surfacing that people with pet turtles were getting sick. In 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned commercial distribution of turtles less than 4 inches in length, and it has been estimated that the FDA ban prevents some 100,000 cases of salmonellosis among children each year.
Maybe I got sick from my turtle.

Maybe I picked up my turtle, rolled around on the carpet with it, pet it a bit, and then stuck my finger in my mouth. Maybe in my emotionally vacant adolescence I kissed my turtle. Who can remember?
Apparently I wasn’t the only pet-deprived child getting cuddly with a turtle. Last year, Josh Kiefer of Du Quoin, Ill. tapped into yet another form of baby-boomer nostalgia and sold hundreds of supposedly salmonella-free red-eared slider turtles each month at his Sea Creatures shop.

And now, just a month after the FDA issued an urgent reminder to consumers that baby turtles can pose a serious health risk after a four-week old infant in Florida died of infection traced to Salmonella pomona, a bacteria that was also found in a pet turtle in the home the $9.4 million Louisiana turtle industry and two Louisiana Republican politicias have introduced legislation directing the FDA to lift the ban.

Sen. David Vitter was quoted as saying, "I believe this legislation is important because it puts an end to the FDA’s unfair standards that limit the livelihood of our Louisiana farmers. The FDA is holding pet turtles to a standard that is impossible to reach — one that even food products are not expected to attain."

Americans do expect food products like peanut butter and tomatoes to be free of salmonella; they sue if salmonella is present.

Each spring, some children become infected with salmonella after receiving a baby chick or duckling for Easter — probably like their parents before them.

Pocket pets, including rats, mice, rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and ferrets, as well as rodents that are bought to feed other animals (such as snakes), can also carry potentially dangerous bacteria.
Contact with reptiles and amphibians accounts for an estimated 74,000 (6 per cent) of the approximately 1.2 million sporadic human Salmonella infections that occur annually in the United States.

Perhaps it is possible to raise and live with salmonella-free turtles. But that’s up to the suppliers to prove. Nostalgia is nice, but it’s not a cure for salmonella.

Douglas Powell is an associate professor and scientific director of the Food Safety Network at Kansas State University