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Europe skewered by kebab fight


Who knew dürüm could cause so much sturm und drang?

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament over how the meat is produced, one side said it was fighting for the very existence of the late-night snack so beloved by the overserved and underfinanced. The other side claimed the mantle of public health and protecting consumers from deceitful practices.

“We do not want kebabs to be banned, but we want them to be healthy,” an S&D Group press release proclaimed. It sounds like an ambitious goal for a delicacy known for salty mystery meat combinations that clock in at over 1,000 calories.

But this legislation was not about kebab’s broader nutritional value. It was about the food additive phosphoric acid.

In fact, Wednesday’s vote was unlikely to change kebab production, whatever the result. The outcome helps move the standard practice out of a legal gray zone.

Phosphates are widely used in frozen kebabs to help cook them evenly and to keep the meat moist. The practice is not technically legal in the EU — but member countries haven’t typically enforced this rule.

The Commission proposed allowing the use of phosphates in “frozen meat vertical meat spits,” a plan that the Parliament failed to block by a three-vote margin.

The issue stems from industry’s request a few years ago for explicit permission to continue adding phosphates to frozen kebab meat. The Commission recently decided they had a point, and proposed adding kebab meat to the list of products that can use phosphates.

Greens and S&D members narrowly failed to block that in Wednesday’s vote.

The European People’s Party claimed to be defending the humble sandwich against the “kebab ban,” according to a press release ahead of the vote.

“Parliament is not voting to ban anything,” an FAQ produced by the Parliament’s own press service clarified.

Still, German European People’s Party MEP Renate Sommer warned of dire consequences. Without the additive, “meat in fast food restaurants would collapse into the form of an elephant foot,” Sommer said in a statement Wednesday. She hinted at economic collapse in a Facebook post last month. About 80 percent of döner skewers consumed in the EU come from Germany, Sommer said. Killing the kebab could cost 110,000 jobs, she warned.

Food safety activists reject these arguments as scaremongering. Instead, they point to studies linking high-phospate diets to heart problems and kidney disease. The Parliament’s objection text also champions the cause of discerning European consumers, even those stumbling into the only shop open for a €4 meal after a night of heavy drinking. Phosphate holds onto water, which could increase the weight of meat, the measure argues, “thereby allowing food business operators to intentionally mislead consumers and commit fraud by selling water for the price of meat.”

Sommer argues that phosphate consumption from kebab is “negligible” — people get more from Coca-Cola. Then again, the EU’s scientific basis for signing off on phosphate levels is 26 years old. After failing to reach a definitive conclusion a few years ago, the European Food Safety Authority is expected to issue a fresh opinion in late 2018.

“What we are simply doing is asking the Commission to wait one year,” said MEP Miriam Dalli, the S&D Group’s health spokesperson. If phosphate does turn out to be dangerous, kebab-makers can switch to alternatives on the market, she argued.

Disappointed NGOs signaled that the next round of the fight will be around labeling.

“Now we need member states to require that kebab vendors clearly inform consumers on the presence of phosphates in their meat through labeling and check they do so,” said Monique Goyens, director general of the European Consumer Organization (BEUC). “That’s the very least they should do.”

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