In an attempt to curtail the incidence of turtle-associated Salmonella infection in children, federal regulations restricting the sale of turtles and their eggs became law in 1975. There is strong evidence that these regulations were effective in reducing the incidence of Salmonella in the US in the late 1970's. Unfortunately, although the regulations were meant as public health measures they have had impacts on both turtle keeping and on turtle conservation. The regulations limit the ability of hobbyists to buy and sell hatchlings, and, because of the expense of raising the animals, they promote the sale of wild-caught rather than captive-bred animals in commercial trade within the US.

The turtle farms that used to produce the millions of hatchling sliders for the dime-store trade now ship their hatchlings overseas (the regulations exclude the export trade) where most of them die within a couple of months. Unfortunately, released survivors of this trade have lead to red-eared slider populations becoming established on every continent except for Antarctica. These feral turtles have displaced the native species in some areas.

Whatever the merits of the regulations, the law is the law, and we have to respect this. Over the last year I have been contacted several times with regard to the legality of sales of undersized turtles. In these dealings it became obvious to me that although there are widespread misconceptions about them, few people seem to have actually read the regulations. For example:

  • Contrary to popular belief, although they may have been inspired by consequences of the trade in hatchling red-eared sliders, the regulations cover all chelonians with a carapace less than 4 inches in length. This includes tortoises and box turtles, not just water turtles. The only exceptions are the sea turtles. These are covered by different laws.
  • In keeping with their public health orientation, the regulations basically cover the mass marketing of turtles to the general public. Because the regulations specifically exclude sales not in connection with a business, most private party sales of surplus stock by hobbyists are unaffected by this law.

The complete regulations are reprinted below from:
21 CFR Ch. 1 (4-1-91 Edition) pages 550-552.

1240.62 Turtles intrastate and interstate requirements

(a) Definition. As used in this section the term "turtles" includes all animals commonly known as turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and all other animals of the order Testudinata, class Reptilia, except marine species (families Dermochelyidae and Chelonidae).

(b) Sales; general prohibition. Except as otherwise provided in this section, viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution.

(c) Destruction of turtles or turtle eggs; criminal penalties.

(1) Any viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches which are held for sale or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution shall be subject to destruction in a humane manner by or under the supervision of an officer or employee of the Food and Drug Administration in accordance with the following procedures:

(i) Any District Office of the Food and Drug Administration, upon detecting viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches which are held for sale or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution, shall serve upon the person in whose possession such turtles or turtle eggs are found a written demand that such turtles or turtle eggs be destroyed in a humane manner under the supervision of said District Office, within 10 working days from the date of promulgation of the demand. The demand shall recite with particularity the facts which justify the demand. After service of the demand, the person in possession of the turtles or turtle eggs shall not sell, distribute, or otherwise dispose of any of the turtles or turtle eggs except to destroy them under the supervision of the District Office, unless and until the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition with draws the demand for destruction after an appeal pursuant to paragraph (c)(1)(ii) of this section.

(ii) The person on whom the demand for destruction is served may either comply with the demand or, within 10 working days from the date of its promulgation, appeal the demand for destruction to the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, 200 C St. SW., Washington, DC 20204. The demand for destruction may also be appealed within the same period of 10 working days by any other person having a pecuniary interest in such turtles or turtle eggs. In the event of such an appeal, the Center Director shall provide an opportunity for hearing by written notice to the appellant(s) specifying a time and place for the hearing, to be held within 14 days from the date of notice, but not within less than 7 days unless by agreement with the appellant(s).