The term ‘shawarma death’ is once again in the news as Devananda, a 16-year-old girl passed away on May 1, 2022, and 49 other students were hospitalised due to food poisoning after they consumed Shawarma at Ideal Food Point in Neeleswaram, Kasaragod (in Kerala, India). There are also cases getting reported in various parts of Tamil Nadu where many consumers developed symptoms of vomite, diarrhea after consuming unhealthy shawarma.
Speaking exclusively told to KitchenHerald.com Arun Singhal, CEO, FSSAI, said, “The Kerala State Food Authorities have informed the nodal body that they took the food sample at the eatery and the analysis report shows that it is unsafe due to the presence of Shigella, a type of bacteria which causes possibly bloody diarrhoea. Infection by Shigella leads to shigellosis, a condition that affects the digestive system. Washing the hands frequently with soap and water is key to preventing the spread of this infection.
Singhal also ensured that the Kerala State Food Authorities are also conducting inspection drives in all surrounding areas. The officials seized 22 kg of meat found stored in unhygienic conditions and samples were sent for analysis. An official press note was issued that 142 shops were closed down and notices were issued to 466 after 1132 inspections were carried out over the last six days. A total of 162 kgs of meat was seized and destroyed during the period.
“As a preliminary enquiry found that all of them had eaten shawarma, the food item has come under the scanner. However, there are others who ate the shawarma and did not fall sick. So we need to conduct a full enquiry to arrive at a conclusion,” said John Vijayakumar, Assistant Commissioner of Food Safety, Kasaragod according to The News Minute website.
In a statement, Veena George, Minister for Health and Family Welfare in the Government of Kerala told The News Minute that pathogenic salmonella was detected in pepper powder kept in the eatery and these samples are certified ‘unsafe’ under the Food Safety and Standards Act. While Shigella is one of the leading bacterial causes of diarrhoea worldwide and is an intestinal infection caused by a family of bacteria, Salmonella infection (salmonellosis) is a common bacterial disease that affects the intestinal tract.
Earlier the term ‘shawarma death’ stuck in 2012 when a 21-year-old youth died after reportedly eating the Middle-Eastern dish shawarma, despite officials clarifying that no trace of food poisoning was found in his body after medical examination.
Shawarma is made by cutting meat into thin slices and placing it on a rotating rotisserie to slow-cook it in the heat. The meat is then cut into pieces and served along with the bread of choice (kuboos, rumali roti, etc), mayonnaise and pickled vegetables. Shawarma is popular street food in Middle Eastern countries, especially Turkey and Egypt.
According to the ‘Safety and Quality of Meat and Poultry Guide Note’ released by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), meat should be stored at 4ºC for short term storage and at -18 ºC or below for long term storage. Meat under normal chilling conditions (0 – 4 ºC) of storage shall be consumed within two to four days. Frozen meat stored at -18 ºC or below must preferably be consumed within 10 to 12 months. Meat and poultry foods must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 75 °C to destroy any harmful bacteria. The shawarma burner, which is almost always placed outside the eateries, is said to be another reason for the possible contamination of the food item.
Kerala Officials Take Action
The Kerala Food Safety department has fast-tracked the appointment of 41 food safety officers to reach the strength of the allotted number of 160, said Commissioner of Food Safety V R Vinod to The Hindu. “The vacancies will be filled in a fortnight since the PSC (Kerala Public Service Commission) is shortlisting the candidates after the interview. The recruitment to the post is direct and not through promotion. Existing officials were being given additional charge as of now,” he said.
C Bijulal, President, Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association said the association has instructed to take extra care when it comes to Arabian food because the cuisine is from another country and Kerala has a completely different climate and environment. “We should hire workers who know how to deal with such food items. Also, mayonnaise is made from raw eggs, and it has to be prepared and served fresh. It can be dangerous if we don’t do all this,” he added.
Food safety officials, however, point out that shawarma is not the only food item that can cause food poisoning, and that any item prepared in an unhygienic condition or stored improperly can lead to infections.
“Organisms form in decaying or old food items and release toxins, which becomes the reason for food poisoning. Chances of this happening are high during summer, as the food will decompose sooner in the heat. When we keep food in the freezer or in low temperatures, the functioning of the organisms will be limited, thereby preventing any contamination,” explains Dr Sudeep, Superintendent of the Government Medical College Hospital, Kannur, according to The News Minute.