April 26, 2011 at 8:50 AM ET
It might be the weirdest way yet to contract food poisoning: Take two bearded dragon lizards, combine with a big batch of turkey gravy and serve to unwitting patrons of a community potluck Thanksgiving dinner.
That’s what happened in Minnesota in 2009, when an outbreak of Salmonella infections typically associated with reptiles sickened at least 19 holiday diners and led health officials on a winding trek that led to a pair of living room lizards.
In the end, the problem was traced back to the private home of a cook who also happened to keep two of the scaly critters in a glass cage, according to a new case report detailed in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health. Three days before the potluck, the cook had made turkey, potatoes, gravy and two salads.
Within hours of the meal, three potluck patrons reported illness and experts were called in to investigate. Trouble was, none of the sick people reported contact with reptiles.
After much sleuthing, however, investigators detected the types of salmonella that made people sick, including an unusual strain of Samonella Labadi, in several places in the gravy-maker’s house, including the kitchen. Health officials said that the infections likely came from the bearded dragons, perhaps when a teenager in the home changed the critters’ food and water dishes using the kitchen sink.
Researchers say it’s just another reminder that reptiles -- including lizards, turtles and snakes -- may be great pets, but they’re also a common source of infections that can be dangerous, even deadly, to very young children and others with vulnerable immune systems. Amphibians, too, can pose problems, such as the recent outbreak of salmonella in more than 200 people caused by pet African dwarf frogs.
The risk of salmonella poisoning in homes that keep reptiles is well documented, the researchers say. But it’s another thing entirely for lax food handlers to sicken large groups of people, all for the sake of a couple scaly pets. They call for better education about food safety -- and more vigilance to keep reptile bacteria away from the gravy.