La. Turtle Farmers Say 35-Year-Old Ban is Unfair

A turtle hatchling is seen at a Louisiana turtle farm. The state's turtle farmers say an FDA ban on selling small turtles is outdated and is crushing yest another industry in the state struck by the oil spill and natural disasters.
CBS
Since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began, volunteers have been working feverishly to save wildlife affected by oil - including sea turtles. But in Louisiana it's the turtle farmers who are fighting for survival - threatened not by oil but by federal regulations, as CBS News correspondent Mark Straussman reports.

At the Concordia turtle farm in Jonesville, La., Jesse Evans breeds a 100,000 turtles; selling nearly 2 million hatchlings a year. But it's getting harder.

"We survived this so far," Evans said. "But I don't know how long it's going to last."

In the 1950s and 60s, baby red-eared slider turtles were the favored first pet of American children and classrooms. But the Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of turtles smaller than 4 inches in 1975, citing a severe risk of salmonella. The FDA says the ban prevents 100,000 children a year from getting infected.

But that's taken a toll on Louisiana's turtle farms. Half have been forced to close. The remaining farmers have filed a lawsuit to lift the ban arguing they now use a detailed cleansing process and raise the turtles in sterile environments.

"Each year they told us it's not good enough and here we are 35 years later, 98.9 percent salmonella free and it's still not good enough," said Eddie Jolly, president of the Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana.

Jolly says pets like frogs and snakes which also carry the bacteria are not banned.

"We are FDA's scapegoat," he said.

Louisiana is the only state that regulates turtle farmers and officials say despite the ban, baby turtles are
still being sold, many of them caught in the wild and infected by disease.

In fact, it's estimated that 2 million turtles - most sold illegally in small pet stores, at county fairs or by street vendors - are still being kept as pets.

"We know there is a significant black market of turtles that are raised under whatever conditions," said Dr. Michael Strain, Louisiana's Commissioner of Agriculture.

The CDC's latest numbers show at least one person has died and more than 100 people in 33 states have been sickened through turtle contamination in the last three years. Strain says lifting the ban on his state's regulated turtles would decrease trips to the emergency room and provide a boost for his farmers, increasing sales from $8 million to more than $100 million a year.

And with many of Louisiana's fishermen docked due to the BP oil spill, Evans says the loss of another industry could be devastating.

"It would be a big tragedy for us if we have to quit," he said.

It's something Evans believes science can help him avoid, as long as the government doesn't move at a turtle's pace.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001 and is based in the Atlanta bureau.