In some places around the world, reptiles are becoming a delicacy, but researchers writing in the International Journal of Food Microbiology say there are dangerous side effects that come with eating the animals. Experts warn that eating crocodiles, turtles, lizards or snakes may result in exposure to dangerous parasites, bacteria, viruses, and to a lesser extent, contamination from heavy metals and residues of veterinary drugs. According to the study,  people can also catch certain diseases (trichinosis, pentastomiasis, gnathostomiasis and sparganosis) by eating reptile meat.

"The clearest microbiological risk comes from the possible presence of pathogenic bacteria, especially Salmonella, and also Shigella, Escherichia coli, Yersinia enterolitica, Campylobacter, Clostridium and Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause illnesses of varying degrees of severity," said Simone Magnino, lead author of the study and a researcher for the World Health Organization (WHO).

Magninon says the data about risks to public health are still inconclusive, since there is no comparative information about consuming this meat and the prevalence of pathogens. Also, there are few published research articles about cases of illness associated with consuming reptile meat.

"Although the majority of the information published about these risks is in relation to reptiles raised as domestic animals (pets), there are also publications relating to wild species or those bred in captivity", explains Magnino.

Yummy!--a plate of iguanas.

(Photo Credit: Marshall Astor (Creative Commons).)

Experts advise people to freeze the meat, just as they would with other foods from animal sources, since this deactivates parasites. Industrial processing and proper cooking (not leaving the meat raw) can also kill off pathogens.

The Scientific Panel on Biological Risks of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) provides independent scientific advice on issues relating directly or indirectly to food security, including risks associated with eating reptile meat.

The objective of these risk evaluations is to supply the relevant bodies (European Commission, European Parliament, EU Council and member states) with a scientific basis in order to help them draw up legislation to guarantee consumer protection.

Some countries use turtles, crocodiles, snakes and lizards as a source of protein in the human food chain. Frozen imported meat from crocodiles, caimans, iguanas and pythons can be found in the EU. These imports, which are on the rise, come mainly from South Africa, the United States and Zimbabwe, and go primarily to Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and the United Kingdom.

Citation: Magnino et al., 'Biological risks associated with consumption of reptile products', International Journal of Food Microbiology, September 2009,  134(3), 163-175; doi:10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2009.07.001