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Jordan: Shawarma Ban

The Black Iris from Jordan discusses the shawarma ban in his country.


  • Bahjat Tabbara

    Of Shawerma and Economics

    One can describe the current situation in Jordan as somewhat embarrassing, given that such a crisis has not been known until recently. Although far better than the days of yore when cat meat was often deputised for beef in some shawerma places (although those were the ‘legends’ all too often, we hear of these ‘legends’ but rarely do we hear the truth.

    The shawerma ban was taken as a measure, given that two major shawerma scares have occured in the past year due to a salmonella outbreak in Madaba and then in the Baqa refuguee camp. Indeed, the cause of the resturant was not known, but the case in Madaba did reveal one resturant owner who blamed the quality of eggs & a lapse in the system. Jordan’s tight-lipped & state censored media immediately trumpeted the ‘greedy merchant’ hypothesis.

    Officials took steps that cannot be described as prudent, but rather incongruious & questionable to ban on chicken shawerma throughout the Kingdom following two (isolated) cases in isolated parts of the Kingdom & generalised the gravity of the situation. The fall out is not merely limited to shawerma, but to government policy in general, but revealed a gross misunderstanding of the problems faced with real culprit, the Salmonella bacteria.

    Salmonella as it is can only be caught due to rotten eggs or related products (such as mayo) or uncooked or poorly prepared meat or chicken. Alternatively it can be developed naturally, but these are rare cases. With these considerations, the health ministry’s ban for ‘public safety’ seems questionable, as it did not extend to chicken or meat products in general, nor did it extend to mayo.

    Although it can cause an upset stomach, & symptoms include high temperature & vometing, it is hardly a deadly disease. It is believed that it can (although rarely) be fatal to those suffering from other complications. Indeed, a person discharged from hospital after suffering from salmonella died shortly afterwards.

    Yet the issue of banning chicken shawerma alone exposed numerous failures of the ministry of health.

    Including Threefold:

    1. Salmonella can come from meat as much as it does from chicken.

    2. The cause has not been established to be the quality of chicken.

    3. The incident took place in isolated parts of the Kingdom, far from major urban centres.

    The measures thus adopted are not only inapprorpriate, but their explaination or justification remain tedious to say the least. The Jordanian media’s journalists continue to cover the case casualy, & all dance to government-media’s theme of blaming anybody but the faults in the system that led to the most recent and unfortunate events.

    Perhaps there is a theme to promote national unity in generalising national problems and solutions when they arrise, afterall, the incidents have not been reported in major urban centres such as Amman, Zarqa, Irbid or elsewhere where a majority of residents reside.

    As usual, the state-controlled media plays to the tune of ‘dishonest merchants’ but the reality reveals something much deeper. The tragedy is how no objective discussion has been allowed & has been villified by those claiming national sentiments.

    The fact of the matter is, shawerma (like all other local products) suffers from discriminatory tax/tarrif laws, even on inputs that force producers (these ‘dishonest merchants’) to source inferior inputs & ingredients, & the result is over-priced & poor quality output. It results in everything, from food to fertilisers.

    As such, readers may be preplexed that even popular food is taxed. A minister some years ago said, “Shawerma is eaten by the rich, & Felafel by the poor” essentially ‘labeling’ anybody who eats this or that but furthermore justifying taxing Shawerma. Like many aspects of the discriminatory tax & tarrif system, the PM even as late as last month said that there would be a ‘qualitive leap’ in popular resturants that would be ‘noticed soon’ but so far this has disappeared.

    Quite what the PM or government officials imply is dubious. But as long as inputs are taxed &/or monopolised by state suppliers (for instance the Jordan

  • Bahjat Tabbara

    Phosphate company) who continue to provide the raw material to local fertiliser makers, albiet whose quality remains inferior to imported fertilisers who happen to use the same sourced raw materials.

    However, since the discussion is about Shawerma, the same principles apply. If sweating and high temperature is a symptom of something, then the poor quality of local products (including Shawerma) is a symptom of something much greater.

    While Jordan’s shawerma and popular resturants can be claimed to be ‘reasonably hygenic’ they are still behind those in neighbouring countries, both in terms of standards & application of the law. Would the health ministry have banned mayo if they knew that a majority of resturants don’t have standard procedures? Or do they consider standardising procedures to be beneath their role as a government? In my days abroad, there were minute details in every developed country on such procedures.

    The fact is, there is no serious investigation, no policy and no informed measure to deal with these cases & it will continue to have an adverse effect on everybody involved.

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