The Health Risks of Eating Reptiles
Dr. Kristie Leong
Most people don't list reptiles as one of their favorite foods, but don't be too quick to underestimate their culinary appeal. Some higher end restaurants now offer alligator, turtle, and even snake on their menu as a way to provide the diner with a unique dining experience. Other people who camp and live off the land, use reptiles they catch as a source of food. In some areas of the world, eating reptiles is thought of as a tasty delicacy. Despite the interest in culinary reptiles, it may not be a sound practice from a health standpoint. Reptiles such as snakes and turtles can harbor parasites, bacteria, and other contaminants.
A study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology reveals that a person eating reptiles can expose themselves to a number of bacteria that can cause intestinal illness and even more serious health problems.
Turtles are a known source of salmonella - a bacteria that causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramping, fever, and vomiting, and even more serious consequences if it enters the bloodstream. Disease causing parasites can also be a problem; but parasites are usually de-activated if a reptile is frozen before preparing it.
There's another problem with eating reptiles. They can also harbor heavy metals that are toxic to humans if they build up to high enough levels. Reptiles collected from polluted areas are particularly likely to have been exposed to dangerous heavy metals that could be toxic to humans. Reptiles come into contact with heavy metals through eating contaminated foods and from swallowing soil that contains heavy metals. When a human eats reptiles that harbor heavy metals, they absorb them also - regardless of how well they're cooked.
Why would people choose to eat reptiles? Some people enjoy trying new types of food - and in other parts of the world and even in this country - alligator, snake, and turtle may be what's on the menu. Other people catch them in the wild on camping trips as a way to test their survival skills. Still others cite the high protein content of reptiles. On the other hand, it may be time to rethink this practice for anyone who doesn't enjoy food poisoning and heavy metal toxicity.
The bottom line? Anyone intent on eating reptiles should freeze these critters before preparing them to de-activate any parasites and cook them well to destroy bacteria that could cause illness. Of course, a safer choice would be to choose other sources of protein and leave the reptiles to live out their lives in peace.
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