In the 70-some years since rural Louisianians first gathered turtle eggs, generally along railroad rights-of-way through swamps, and sold the hatchlings as pets, the turtle industry in Louisiana has experienced a roller coaster ride that may be at its lowest point.
By the 1950s farmers were building ponds at the swamp edges keeping the adult turtles in captivity and harvesting the eggs. The process evolved and matured into an industry that, while still following many of the old practices, now uses sophisticated methods to combat salmonella bacteria, which was revealed as a problem for the industry more than 30 years.
Today, Louisiana has about 60 turtle farmers that produce more than 10 million turtles with a gross farm value of nearly $5 million, according to the LSU AgCenter’s Agricultural Summary.
Based on information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta in June 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the U.S. sale and interstate transportation of turtles with shells less than 4 inches across because they harbored salmonella. Louisiana’s turtle farmers turned to international markets and haven’t had a domestic market since then.
“This is the only pet industry in the United States that has been restricted as a result of the potential health threat associated with salmonella, even though other pet industries and food-related industries also serve as potential threats,” said Mark Mitchell, an LSU AgCenter veterinary researcher.
The fight against salmonella in turtle hatchlings began in earnest in the early 1970s when the LSU AgCenter’s Ronald Siebeling, a professor of immunology, began working on a treatment for eliminating the disease from turtle eggs and subsequently the hatchlings that came from them. In 1976, Louisiana turtle farmers began using Siebeling’s salmonella treatment.
That’s when the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry stepped in and sponsored legislation that made it mandatory for the eggs to be treated for salmonella and specified that a sample of each batch of hatchlings be tested by an FDA-approved laboratory. All Louisiana turtle farms were using the treatment by the mid 1980s.
Producing salmonella-free turtles and having them certified by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry led to the opening of international markets, and the state’s turtle farmers developed a thriving business in Europe and Asia.
In 2003, Mitchell followed Siebeling and began developing more effective treatments to control salmonella in the aquatic habitat of the turtles. In three research projects, Mitchell showed salmonella were significantly reduced or eliminated in water, eggs and hatchlings.
“It is important to me that those individuals evaluating this research realize that these results are consistent with those reported on similar projects in other agricultural industries – poultry, swine and beef – and the pet reptile industry,” Mitchell said. “Unfortunately, the FDA has placed an unfair set of guidelines on the aquatic chelonian industry.”
Turtles are chelonians – reptiles with shells.
Mitchell said the guidelines – that salmonella be eliminated from hatchlings, that resistance to the treatment does not occur, and that turtles don’t become recolonized with salmonella – are unacceptable.
“I can provide hundreds of documents that show that salmonella cannot be completely controlled in poultry, beef, swine, vegetables and fruit,” Mitchell said. “This is a small group of farmers with a very small voice. To shut them down completely is totally wrong.”
Mitchell stays in close contact with the state’s turtle farmers, keeping them informed of what he’s doing and encouraging them not to give up. But the bureaucratic fight is a tough one.
“We’ve made definite progress,” said Sonny White who raises 400,000 turtles a year on what he calls an “average size” farm near Jonesville. “We can produce a 98 percent salmonella-free turtle.”
Somewhere between 75 percent to 80 percent of Louisiana turtles are sold to China, where turtles are both pets and food. Mexico and Europe comprise the balance of the market.
The Chinese grow the turtles to about one pound – “sort of like we grow chickens,” White said.
“We’re an industry that’s discriminated against,” White said. “There’s not any food on today’s market that is 98 percent salmonella- free.”
Washing eggs and treating hatchlings have been successful at preventing salmonella. But the third requirement – to demonstrate that turtles don’t become re-colonized by salmonella – is “impossible to accommodate,” Mitchell said. That’s why the turtle farmers are asking the FDA why their industry has been singled out as no other has.
Mitchell has taken the fight to Washington, having traveled to meet with FDA representatives and staff members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation to discuss his concerns with current federal regulations restricting both the interstate and intrastate sale of turtles.
“Since the FDA’s ban on selling small pet turtles began in the 1970s, pet turtle farmers in Louisiana have developed methods proven by scientific research to maintain a safe turtle, but the bureaucrats at the FDA continue to abstain from changing their flawed policy,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
“Farmers estimate that domestic sales would be about $3 a turtle,” he said. “If they receive half of their foreign market numbers domestically, our Louisiana turtle farmers could contribute up to $300 million annually to our economy. With methods to keep pet turtles safe, I believe the turtle farmers should have access to the domestic market.”
Mitchell, White and Vitter hope they can persuade the FDA to rescind the strict regulations.
LSU AgCenter research on turtles has been funded by the state’s turtle farmers, who contribute a half cent for each turtle they sell.
“They are investing in their own industry,” Mitchell said.
(This article was published in the winter 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)