Thinking about trying something exotic like Turtle Soup?…Think Again – There is potential for Serious Health Effects

Sea turtles, specifically green sea turtles, are at risk each breeding season from poachers who kill them for food. Sea turtles slowly haul themselves out of the water during nesting season where they are vulnerable to poachers who will harvest them on site or flip them over, letting them slowly die, only to return the next day for their meat and eggs. Turtle meat is prized in some communities for its taste, putative therapeutic value, and cultural significance.

Alonso Aguirre, a wildlife epidemiologist at Columbia University and a member of the non-profit Wildlife Trust, states that more than 1 million people a year will periodically ingest sea turtle meat, organs, blood, or eggs.

Legal turtle farming is the practice of raising turtles and tortoises of various species commercially for food, traditional medical ingredients, or as pets. There have only been three serious attempts to farm sea turtles at a commercial scale, and only one in Cayman Islands is currently in business; running as a wildlife viewing tourism attraction as well as a turtle farm.

Legal turtle farmers worldwide raise freshwater turtles like the Chinese Soft-shelled for food. According to Chinese aquaculture report released in 2009, researchers estimated that about 300 million farm-raised turtles are sold annually by China’s registered turtle farms, worth around US$750 million (Zhang Jian, 2009). However, many go unreported.

Consuming farmed or illegally poached reptiles as food pose a risk to human health. The fact is there just hasn’t been enough research about illness associated with consuming reptile meat, which is making many farming operations potential breeding centers for disease, and leaving many consumers in the dark.

It is well known that parasites, bacteria, viruses, and contamination from heavy metals and chemicals are found in reptile body tissues.  A study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology shows that people can catch certain diseases (trichinosis, pentastomiasis, gnathostomiasis and sparganosis) by eating the meat of reptiles such as crocodiles, turtles, lizards or snakes.

These risks have been seen to increase in farmed turtles. A study published in the  JRSM Short Reports, in 2013 found that tourists coming into contact with captive-housed sea turtles, typically through handling turtles in confined pools or through consuming turtle products like turtle soup, carries the risk of exposure to toxic contaminants and to zoonotic (animal to human) pathogens. Symptoms, which may take some time to emerge, can resemble gastrointestinal disorders or flu; but people more severely affected can suffer septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure.

Researcher Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation, said: “The subsequent distribution of visitors exposed to turtle farm conditions may also involve opportunities for further dissemination of contaminants into established tourist hubs including cruise ships and airline carriers.”

Warwick said: “Significantly, the captive farming of turtles arguably increases the threat to health, in particular from bacteria, due to the practice of housing many turtles in a relatively confined space and under intensive conditions.”

Warwick concluded: “People should avoid food derived from sea turtles and perhaps also other relatively long-lived species regardless of their role in the food chain as all these animals potentially have more time in which to accumulate hazardous organisms and toxins and present an increased risk of animal-linked human pathology.”

Turtles can eat including variety of things, such as mollusks, plants, sponges, frogs, birds and fish.  Turtle’s high fat content holds and builds up the level (bio-accumulating) pollutants from their meals, such as cadmium and mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and the pesticides chlordane, dieldrin, and DDT. When humans eat turtle meat we also accumulate these contaminants in high concentrations in our fat stores.

In Ontario it is technically still legal to hunt snapper turtles for food even though they are listed as species of “Special Concern” under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act in 2008. You can also get softshell turtle in many restaurants in large cities like Toronto. Think twice about your health and opt for the chicken soup instead!

Journal References:

Clifford Warwick, Phillip C Arena and Catrina Steedman. Health implications associated with exposure to farmed and wild sea turtles. JRSM Short Reports, Feb 2013

Zhang Jian (章剑), A new edition of the national standard “Chinese soft-shelled turtle pond aquaculture technical specifications” is to be published. Turtle news (中国龟鳖网), 18 November 2009 (appears to be a machine translation of the more comprehensible Chinese original, “国家标准《中华鳖池塘养殖技术规范》新版即将问世”, at )

Magnino et al. Biological risks associated with consumption of reptile products. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 2009; 134 (3): 163 DOI:10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2009.07.001