Reptile owners around the country are on alert. Two federal agencies are investigating. At least 37 people in 18 states have gotten sick. Five had to be hospitalized.
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, the cause of all this is a dose of salmonella that can be traced back to a product sold by a Florida company.
The product: frozen mice, suitable for feeding to your pet snake.
The mice — and, if you order the large size, rats — are packaged and marketed under the name "Arctic Mice." These frozen treats have been "raised in a sanitary environment" and "formula fed to provide superior nutrition for reptiles" and as a result they are "readily accepted by snakes and carnivorous lizards," according to the listing at PetSmart, which sells them.
Arctic Mice — please don't call them "mice-cicles" — are produced by Reptile Industries, a company started 30 years ago in Naples. Founders Mark and Kim Bell, according to a 2011 government report, are among a small group of reptile professionals who "have pioneered and expanded captive breeding within the United States." Their company's website boasts that their family-run operation is now the largest reptile breeder in America.
On Tuesday the CDC and the FDA issued a warning to "pet owners who have purchased frozen rodents packaged by Reptile Industries, Inc., since Jan. 11, 2014, advising that these products have the potential to be contaminated with salmonella."
The Bells could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but through their daughter, Jamie Cassin, they released a statement that said they were cooperating with the FDA and CDC investigation. They said they have recalled some of their Arctic Mice — but not all of them.
"Reptile Industries Inc. has continued to sample bulk product as well as audit individual product for salmonella," they said. "No positive test results for the Arctic Mice brand frozen rodents have been received from the third-party testing conducted by Reptile Industries, Inc."
So despite requests from the CDC and FDA that they recall all their Arctic Mice sold since January, when the first person fell ill, the company is only recalling one lot from April. That's the only one at their facility that tested positive for salmonella.
The salmonella investigation "will be a huge financial impact for us," Cassin said in a tearful interview Wednesday. She said she feared that the company she has known since she was a child might not survive the lost sales and heightened federal scrutiny, and at the very least layoffs of some long-time employees may be necessary.
Federal officials want Reptile Industries to consider installing equipment to subject its mice and rats to radiation prior to packing them up for sale, she said, but that might prove to be too expensive. While negotiations continue the company has stopped production of arctic mice, she said.
"We don't know what the future holds," she said.
Salmonella infection is a constant risk for reptile owners. The bacteria that causes it lives on their animals and in the animals' intestines, and also is on the rodents they feed to their pets. Freezing the mice and rats won't kill the bacteria, either.
So snake and lizard fanciers have to wash their hands thoroughly after feedings and take other measures to avoid an infection that leads to diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
The whole feeding process can be complicated. As with your Birdseye brand Salisbury steak, frozen mice and rats need to thaw out to be appetizing. The PetSmart website warns in bold letters: Do not microwave.
Instead, the future snake food must sit in a cup of water for 30 minutes. Then the owner can feed it to hungry Slythern the snake — holding it with tongs "to avoid accidental bites from your reptile" and shaking it a bit to make it seem alive.
Although Reptile Industries and its subsidiary ReptMart.com — "the world's premier online supplier of snakes, lizards, turtles, tortoises, supplies and more" — offer a wide variety of homegrown products, the mice and rats they sell are the one thing that is not bred on-site, Cassin said.
"We get them from a variety of other places around the U.S.," she said. "It's hard to trace back where that one that tested positive came from."