Federal judge tells FDA to re-examine turtle sale regulations

Lawsuit by turtle farmers sought to end a ban on sale of hatchlings as pets
Published on May 18, 2010
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By Greg Cima 

A federal court ruling will make Food and Drug Administration officials re-evaluate the fairness of a ban on the sale of small turtles and eggs.

U.S. District Judge Dee D. Drell wrote in a March 29 ruling that the court was allowing the ban to remain in place but ordering the FDA to address issues raised by the Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana in their lawsuit against the agency. The trade organization unsuccessfully challenged the FDA's authority to enact and enforce the ban, but the judge sided with the organization in part by ruling that the FDA should evaluate allegations of disparate treatment across pet industries and the standards that would need to be met prior to ending the ban.

In 1975, the FDA banned the sale of turtle eggs and turtles with carapaces less than 4 inches long in response to potential links between turtles and Salmonella infection in children. The ban provides exemptions for turtles exported or sold for educational, scientific, or exhibition purposes.

Information from the FDA indicates that historically, pet turtles, particularly red-eared sliders, were connected with about 280,000 Salmonella infections yearly in the U.S, but the number of turtle-associated infections has been estimated at about 74,000 annually as of 2007.

The FDA denied in May 2006 a petition from the turtle farmers to lift or amend the ban, and the trade group filed a federal lawsuit against the FDA about a year later in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana. In March, the judge granted motions in part for summary judgment filed by both parties.

Drell wrote that the FDA provided the turtle farmers and the court with little insight into "the unique threat posed to children by small turtles" and that the agency acted in an "arbitrary and capricious" manner in failing to explain why small turtles, other pets, and food products do not pose a similar risk; why the sale of pets similarly attractive to children is not regulated or banned; or why regulations or warning letters could not address issues related to the sale of hatchling turtles.

The judge also wrote that, given the "age, strictness, and selectivity" of the ban, the time has come to re-evaluate the regulation, but the court was not the proper forum for that re-evaluation. The turtle farmers' organization had argued that the FDA set impossible standards for elimination of Salmonella organisms in turtles for the agency to reconsider the ban, but the judge ruled that the organization had not articulated the arguments in detail and the FDA should be allowed an opportunity to address them.

FDA spokeswoman Laura Alvey said the agency was evaluating the ruling and determining the next steps. As a result, she could not provide further comments.

In an FDA publication, "Pet Turtles: Cute but Contaminated with Salmonella," Dr. Joseph C. Paige, a consumer safety officer for the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, states that reptiles and amphibians are commonly contaminated with the bacteria, and children are more likely to have contact with small turtles than with other such animals. He states that small children tend to put small turtles in their mouths or put their hands in their mouths after touching turtles or turtle tank water.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified three Salmonella outbreaks, together involving about 260 laboratory-confirmed Salmonella-related illnesses, associated with turtles since 2006. The CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published Feb. 26 states that street vendors and flea markets, common sources of illegal turtle sales, are connected with the most recent outbreak, which occurred between March and October 2008.

Dr. Mark A. Mitchell, an associate professor and the section head for Companion and Zoological Animal Health at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, said that, with water filtration, use of diets negative for Salmonella organisms, and public education, turtle producers and sellers can minimize the public health risk of the pets. Reptile ownership carries some risk, but parents can minimize that risk through proper care, just as they minimize other risks through actions such as properly cooking food or strapping their children into child safety seats, he said.

Hygiene, public health, and awareness of proper reptile handling have improved since the early 1970s, when dime stores sold turtles in small containers, Dr. Mitchell said. Such sales, now illegal, still exist in areas including coastal North Carolina and Florida, but he said those sales show a need for regulation rather than the shutdown of an entire industry.

Dr. Mitchell said it was exciting that the judge considered the turtle farmers' requests and that the FDA will review their request to modify or nullify the hatchling sales ban. While he is concerned that the ruling could lead to equal restrictions on other species, he hopes it will, instead, lead to consistent regulations and opportunities for the sales of small turtles.

Eddie Jolly, president of the Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana, similarly expects the ruling will force the FDA to allow the sale of hatchling turtles as pets or to impose similar restrictions on the sale of other amphibians and reptiles.

"They have been shunning us for 35 years, and now all we want is our fair share of the market," Jolly said. "And I believe we're going to get it."

Jolly said turtle producers will prove that hatchling turtles can, among animals capable of being colonized with Salmonella, be the cleanest and safest pets available.

The turtle industry is fighting to sell turtle hatchlings domestically at a time when the industry's export market has collapsed.

Turtle production in Louisiana has dropped from about 15 million animals in 2004 to about four million this year, Jolly said. China had been the largest market for American red-eared slider hatchlings, but farmers within China began growing their own turtles and undercutting U.S. producers, driving down the market price for turtles from about $1 each, six years ago, to 35 or 40 cents each, this year.

Jolly said that price is just above the profit margin and not high enough for turtle farmers to make a living.

The AVMA has information about the connections between turtles and Salmonella infection here.