Louisiana turtle farmers and lawmakers are trying to end a federal ban on domestic pet turtle hatchling sales.
"After 30 years of research and development, we have developed a pet baby turtle that we feel would be safe and very appropriate for the homes of children and adults," said Keith Boudreaux, owner of Tangi Turtle Farm in Ponchatoula, La.
"We educate the public and then it's up to the public to accept or not accept certain risks. And obviously there are lots of people who do accept the risks of owning reptiles, chelonians more specifically, and don't have problems."
—DR. MARK MITCHELL,
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF VETERINARY CLINICAL MEDICINE,
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS
Nine of the state's members of Congress introduced or co-sponsored bills and amendments in 2007 that would have ended the Food and Drug Administration's prohibition, which has stood since 1975. A turtle farmers' organization is suing the FDA in federal court to contest the fairness of the regulation, but no court date has been set.
The FDA adopted the regulation against selling pet turtles with carapaces less than four inches long in response to links between the animals and childhood Salmonella infections in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It allows the export of hatchlings and eggs and sales for educational, scientific, and exhibition purposes.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports indicate infections remain a concern.
The CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from Jan. 25 states that 24 people were hospitalized in a series of Salmonella infections related to exposure to small turtles in 2007 and early 2008. In support of the ban, the report cites a 1980 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that indicates the ban prevents an estimated 100,000 Salmonella infections in U.S. children each year.
"Prohibiting the sale and distribution of small turtles likely remains the most effective public health action to prevent turtle-associated salmonellosis," the report says.
Boudreaux said turtle farmers have improved feeding, pond health, hatching, and storage practices since the 1970s.
"I would be lying to you if I told you that they were going to be 100 percent Salmonella-free and they would stay 100 percent Salmonella-free," Boudreaux said. "They wouldn't, but our research and development and the longevity of our treating procedure states that they are probably 98.9 percent Salmonella-free."
Small turtles are treated differently from other reptiles, which also carry Salmonella, because they are most likely to be sold as children's pets, according to information from the FDA. People who illegally sell turtles can receive up to one year in prison and $1,000 fines for each violation.
Louisiana's turtle farms have survived through sales overseas. An article in the winter 2007 edition of Louisiana Agriculture, a Louisiana State University AgCenter publication, stated that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the state's turtles were exported to China, where they were raised as food and pets.
The industry has faced problems connected with exports. A federal court filing says the National Turtle Farmers & Shippers Association pleaded guilty in June 1995 and accepted a $25,000 fine for price fixing in overseas trade. The European Union banned red-eared sliders in the late 1990s to control invasive species.
The export value of Louisiana turtles crashed about four years ago, when Chinese farmers began raising hatchlings. The price for each red-eared slider dropped from about $1 to 18 cents, Boudreaux said.
"There is no profitability for the red-eared turtle left anymore," Boudreaux said.
Louisiana's state veterinarian, Dr. Henry Moreau, said the state's 62 licensed turtle farmers together produce an average of 8 million to 10 million turtles yearly.
"What we would like to see is a regulated sale of pet turtles in that these pet turtles are raised in clean, healthy environments and sold with printed information on the best way to raise them," Dr. Moreau said.
Boudreaux estimated the production was closer to 7 million eggs this year, and he said that was half the total from 2006.
Children, turtles, and Salmonella
The Jan. 25 CDC report says 103 people reported illnesses attributed to Salmonella in the 33-state outbreak from May 2007 to January 2008, and 47 of 80 patients said they were exposed to turtles within a week of their illness. The report blamed the illegal sale of small turtles at pet stores, flea markets, and other outlets.
Mark Sotir, PhD, an epidemiologist with the CDC, said a case-control study conducted in investigating the outbreak found that people who became ill were approximately 40 times as likely to have been exposed to turtles before their illness than healthy people interviewed in the study. Turtles are easily colonized with the bacteria and shed it intermittently, often leaving no signs of infection, even through testing.
"We actually had a child last April die from a Salmonella infection after being exposed to a small turtle," Dr. Sotir said. "What we do know is children, immunocompromised persons, and the elderly are at higher risk for invasive and more serious disease from Salmonella infection."
Dr. Moreau said Louisiana strictly monitors the chain of custody for hatchlings, and turtles sold illegally should not be coming from his state.
Dr. Nicholas Saint-Erne, technical services veterinarian for PetSmart Inc., said dropping the FDA restrictions would likely increase the unregulated sale of cheap turtle hatchlings in small plastic boxes at swap meets, convenience stores, and street corners.
"I would love to sell baby turtles in a pet shop," Dr. Saint-Erne said. "But I would rather not sell them if they would put people's health at risk or the whole pet industry's reputation at risk."
Dr. Saint-Erne represents industrial veterinary medicine on the AVMA Aquatic Veterinary Medicine Committee.
Boudreaux said people need education on the care of turtles, which he wants to have sold through pet stores, placed in aquariums, and kept out of contact with children. He wants the FDA to adopt a percentage limit on the number of turtles infected, rather than a total ban.
"The turtles will stay as clean as the environment they're kept in," Boudreaux said. "It's as simple as maintenance, not only for the turtle but the home environment."
Dr. Mark Mitchell, an associate professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois, said people should be allowed to have turtles as long as they accept the risk involved. He co-authored an article that started on page 158 of the February 2007 AJVR and evaluated an egg wash's ability to suppress or eliminate Salmonella on egg surfaces and in hatchlings.
"I often joke: I have a DVM, a master's, a PhD; I'm recognized internationally in my field; and I cannot legally purchase a turtle under four inches as a pet in my household," Dr. Mitchell said. "But I can purchase a gun after a waiting period."
Dr. Mitchell said Salmonella can be suppressed and eliminated from turtles, but the turtle industry cannot guarantee the animals won't be re-exposed to Salmonella in households where pet owners feed them Salmonella-positive human food. The industry's goal is to educate the public and minimize the risk of exposure.
"We educate the public and then it's up to the public to accept or not accept certain risks," Dr. Mitchell said. "And obviously there are lots of people who do accept the risks of owning reptiles, chelonians more specifically, and don't have problems."
Dr. Saint-Erne said he would more likely approve of the sale of turtle hatchlings if only licensed pet stores could sell them and each came with a unique, nonreproducible certificate of disinfection. Unlike people who spend $100 for a turtle and habitat at a pet store, people who buy turtles for $5 are less likely to buy appropriate habitats, research turtles' needs, or care for the animals for up to 40 years.
Reducing impulse purchases decreases the number of animals that die quickly or are dumped in waterways, Dr. Saint-Erne said.
Legislation and lawsuits
It was unlikely at press time that the Domestic Pet Turtle Market Access Act of 2007 would pass and overturn the ban on the sale of turtle hatchlings and eggs. The bill was referred to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives in February 2007, and no further actions were taken through September 2008.
Versions of the bill were initially sponsored or co-sponsored by all nine of the state's U.S. senators and representatives. Two of the representatives have since been replaced.
The AVMA did not support the bills. The position was based on review of available scientific literature and evidence indicating the turtles could pose a public health hazard.
Senator Mary Landrieu also added amendments to the 2007 Food and Drug Administration Revitalization Act and the Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007 that would have allowed the sale of turtles treated for Salmonella infection and distributed with information on Salmonella risk. The amendments died in conference with the House.
A Landrieu aide said Louisiana researchers and farmers have diminished the risk of Salmonella infection, and care after sale should be up to consumers.
Eddie Jolly, president of the Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana, said his organization is suing the FDA and Department of Health and Human Services because small turtles are singled out for regulation while no other pet producers have requirements for eliminating Salmonella colonization. The case was filed last year in the U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana.
"It's huge discrimination, it's a double standard, and we will prove it in court," Jolly said.
A spokeswoman for the FDA cited the pending lawsuit in declining to answer questions about turtle regulations and law enforcement.