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FDA Acts to Reduce the Risk of Salmonella Infection

What do 1,000 yellow-bellied sliders and Mississippi map turtles have to do with public health?

These turtles can make people very sick.

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On March 3, 2008, Strictly Reptiles Inc., a wildlife dealer in Hollywood, Fla., sold 1,000 baby yellow-bellied sliders and Mississippi map turtles to a souvenir shop in Panama City, Fla. The sale violated a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on small pet turtles designed to protect the public from the disease-causing bacteria Salmonella. Turtles often carry Salmonella on their outer skin and shell surfaces, and people can get Salmonella infection by coming in contact with turtles or their habitats.

On July 14, 2008, the U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale convicted and sentenced Strictly Reptiles for its role in illegally selling, and offering for sale, live undersized turtles. The Florida District of FDA's law enforcement arm, the Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated the case leading to the conviction, with help from FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.

"The illegal sale of these pet turtles put one of our most vulnerable populations—children—at risk for becoming very sick," says Philip Walsky, assistant special agent in charge in FDA's OCI Headquarters office.

Salmonella Infection Can Cause Illness

All reptiles (turtles, lizards, snakes) and amphibians (frogs, salamanders) are commonly contaminated with Salmonella. The bacteria do not make these animals sick, but they can make people ill and even be life-threatening to children, elderly people, and others with weakened immune systems.

Small pet turtles are of particular concern because children are more prone to handling the turtles without washing their hands afterwards, and even putting the turtles in their mouths.

In 1975, FDA banned the sale of small pet turtles—those with shells less than four inches long. Infectious disease specialists estimate that banning small turtles prevents 100,000 Salmonella infections in children each year in the United States. The ban excludes small turtles when they are used for educational, exhibitional, or scientific purposes—not as pets.

Despite the ban, in recent years, several widespread outbreaks of Salmonella infection related to undersized turtles have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2007, two teenaged girls in South Carolina became very ill with bloody diarrhea, cramps, fever, and vomiting after they swam in an unchlorinated, in-ground pool where the family's pet turtles had also been allowed to swim. The same strain of Salmonella found in the teenaged girls was also found in 101 other people in 32 states who were reported ill between early May 2007 and mid-January 2008, according to CDC. When 80 of these people were questioned, 47 of them confirmed that they had been exposed to a turtle during the seven days before they got sick.

In February 2007, the tragic death of a four-week-old baby in Florida was linked to Salmonella from a small pet turtle.

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