Know Your Kebabs

Reporter: Helen Wellings

No wonder they're jokingly referred to as the "kebab of courage". Kebabs do have a reputation - not a good one. The latest tests for dangerous bugs, salmonella and ecoli, are so alarming that food safety inspectors such as microbiologist Craig Andrew-Kabilafkas are calling for action.

"The consumer is looking at kebab stores and reporting back that they are seeing unsafe food handling practices... they eat them at all times of day and night and often at night the standards may change because the regulators aren't around and people think they can get away with more outside normal work hours," says Craig.

And they have been getting away with dirty practices. The NSW Food Authority randomly targeted 25 suburban doner kebab shops. The results are released even though the tests are only half-way through, because standards are slipping. The government thinks customers and kebab shop owners should be warned now.

Less than half the kebab samples passed the test. Standards are slipping because 1 in 2, compared with 1 out of 5 in the previous 2004 survey, were found to be "marginal", in other words, downright risky, because they contain small traces of potentially dangerous, ecoli bacteria, from human or animal waste. Another 3.6% are unsatisfactory, simply not acceptable, with levels of ecoli bacteria well above the legal limit. "Those that are below standard need to be outed from the industry, we don't want these businesses," says Craig.

NSW Minister for Primary Industries and State Development, Ian MacDonald, says action has been taken against one kebab shop owner with high ecoli levels."We want the kebab shops to up their game to work with the food authority to improve their practices and get rid of and totally eliminate ecoli presence in their worksites," he said. It's not just dirty premises and unhygienic handling that cause food poisoning. With kebabs, Food Authorities have found bugs can be transmitted through the actual kebab meat - because of the way it's cooked and if it's stored in the meat tray for long periods.

"Meat should not be sold unless its cooked at very high temperatures, secondly they should not be using knives. They should be using thickness controlled electric knives, it takes human error out of play and thirdly they should not be cutting in advance. They should be cutting fresh to order, which ensures no excess meat is sitting inside the tray," says Robert. And then properly recooked. Robert Marjan, CEO of the Ali Baba kebab chain, one of the good examples out there, has food hygiene and safety down to a fine art.

But because anyone can set up a food shop, he believes governments should make food handling courses and better standards mandatory. Salads can also cause serious food poisoning. "All the salads and dips here are pre-cut and sent to stores so there is no human contact whatsoever, secondly they are stored in refrigerated bars between 0 and 4 degrees at all times, and thirdly different utensils are used for the salads than the meats, so no cross contamination," says Robert. But there's another problem.

"The consumer has no way of telling whether food is safe or not. You can't see bacteria," says Craig. Food authorities and local governments normally won't tell us who the unsafe food culprits are. They might cop penalty notices for filthy premises and food, but most continue to trade. "That is being changed. Right now in the parliament, the name and shame legislation will be in place before the mid-year. It will then name these premises that have received pin notices or penalty notices which are at risk to human health ... they will be on the name an shame register and they will be on it for two years," says Ian McDonald.

It's hoped other states will now follow the NSW plan to name and shame. "Naming and shaming will help the customer, so it is a good thing to name and shame," adds Craig.Within a few months, you should be able to go to the Food Authority website and check food outlets on the Name and Shame Register. We'll let you know when that starts.

Know your kebabs

A checklist for consumers
Kebabs are a great source of lean meats, fresh vegetables, antioxidants and are a nutritious, healthy alternative to highly processed, overly refined fast foods.

A brand you can trust will always ensure your health and wellbeing comes first and they will ensure you receive a high standard of product consistently, every time.

Consumers have every right to expect that food prepared for them is prepared with the highest attention to food safety and hygiene standard, so here are a few tips on what to look out for to choose a great, healthy, beautifully prepared kebab!

1) The overall area, including display windows should be clean and tidy.
2) Staff should be wearing gloves to handle food and these should be removed or changed when handling money.
3) Long hair should be tied up and hair nets worn.
4) Separate utensils should be used to handle meat products from vegetable products.
5) Separate utensils should be used for handling different meats, such as chicken and lamb.

And most importantly:
6) Make sure the meat used for your kebab is carved fresh straight from the skewer - do not accept meat that has been sitting in the tray or is being stored on a plate.