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Food Safety Network Blog

Friday, June 23, 2006

My memories of turtles -- and salmonella

My first warm-blooded pets were two kittens a girl gave me near the end of university.

But 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 for the 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?

The parents of 11 fifth-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Milford, Mass. now confirmed with salmonella might be asking the same questions. The State Department of Public Health is looking at the water in the turtle's aquarium as a possible contaminator, while still exploring a link to a fifth-grade science experiment involving the dissection of owl pellets.

Despite the FDA ban, those small turtles are still allowed for educational purposes.

And apparently I wasn't the only pet-deprived child getting cuddly with a turtle. Josh Kiefer of Du Quoin, Ill. is tapping into yet another form of baby-boomer nostalgia and selling hundreds of supposedly salmonella-free red-eared slider turtles each month at his Sea Creatures shop.

"I can’t keep them in stock," said Kiefer recently in a local paper. "They’re very popular. I think it’s really kind of a retro thing for a lot of people."

The demand is certainly there -- legal or not.

In 2005, a Tampa newspaper reported that the number of businesses selling turtles illegally had surged in Florida, which a local epidemiologist said was responsible for an increase in human salmonella cases in the area. Breeding turtle couples are advertized for purchase on the Internet so tweens can spawn their own under 4-inch reptiles. And investigations of previous turtle-related outbreaks found that while many retailers were aware of the FDA ban, they attempted to circumvent it by giving away turtles with purchase of a turtle habitat -- groovy molding -- or by claiming that turtles were being distributed for educational purposes only.

And it's not just the turtles.

Australian researchers recently reported that a multidrug-resistant strain of Salmonella paratyphi B sent some children to the hospital with high fever and bloody diarrhea. Investigators used DNA fingerprinting to trace the source to fish tanks in the patients' homes.

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 percent) of 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, remember the first rule of public health: keep poop out of your mouth. 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.



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