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My memories of turtles -- and salmonella

01.aug.06, Doug Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

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.

01.aug.06, Doug Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
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 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 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, 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
dpowell@ksu.edu
785-317-0560
www.foodsafety.ksu.edu