Behind the recurring waves of poison at shawerma places is the extensive availability of shops selling live chicken or “nattafat” in provinces. Such places continue to work in unsanitary conditions, under the supervision of expatriate laborers despite attempts to close them, according to heads of municipalities and health experts. Sources say that hundreds of such nattafat provide shawerma restaurants with slaughtered chicken in contrast with sanitary conditions applied at the central slaughterhouse in Amman, the only city with no such nattafat by official decree because of the existence of a slaughterhouse that can meet the needs of its inhabitants.Mayors warn that risks of poisoning by salmonella remain in chicken sold at the nattafat even after imposing strict monitoring and new sanitary standards on shawerma places.This investigative report began by monitoring live chicken sale shops in three provinces, Balqa’a, Zarqa’a and Rusaifeh (Central Kingdom) to measure the extent of owners’ obedience to sanitary and environmental standards. There are 285 nattafat in Zarqa’a, the third most populous province after Amman and Irbid. Most of these places are spread in poor neighborhoods, namely Al-Ghweirieh, Al-Hussein, Ma’asoum, and Prince Muhammad neighborhoods.As for Rusaifeh, which witnessed the largest wave of mass poisoning, there are 132 shops located in its alleyways and the entrance of Hittin refugee camp. There are 135 shops in Balqa’a supplied with birds from 157 farms selling chickens for meat and eggs.
Sources in Zarqa’a municipality affirm that they have been attempting to close the nattafat since the year of 2000 without success. The sources said the main reason is “failure to get a central slaughterhouse ready due to lack of funding” despite efforts by the municipality and the Ministry of Municipalities.We traveled from Zarqa’a to Rusaifeh nearby, which witnessed the largest waves of poisoning in the middle of this year. Ghassan Khreisat, former mayor of the city stated that the municipality “had decided this year to close the nattafat for good. But the failure to establish a slaughterhouse led us to retract and allow shops to work until the end of the current year after the issue of the slaughterhouse is resolved.”The city continues to tighten monitoring of these shops to guarantee environmental and public safety requirements, according to Khreisat. Yet, monitoring faces hurdles at field level since most shops are rented to migrant workers making it difficult to apply public safety requirements.
Ad-Dustour witnessed many violations including the sale of “chicken remnants to two factories processing slaughtered chicken waste.” These are carried in pickup trucks making the rounds collecting such remnants from shops.The first factory is located in the Dhleil area on the main al-Azraq road; the second is in
The first factory is located in the Dhleil area on the main al-Azraq road; the second is in Mowaqqar, 60 kilometers southeast of Amman. The problem lies in the fact that the decision to close such shops is usually met with many obstacles since “opposite forces go immediately into action to stop decisions released by specialized authorities”, according to sources in the municipalities of Zarqa’a and Rusaifeh.But the owner of one nattafah in the Ma’asoom neighborhood stated that “the closure of these shops will increase unemployment and lead to deteriorating conditions of families making a living from such shops.” This segment of the population goes quickly into action “calling upon centers of power and sending protestation memos to the Prime Minister to stop decisions to close the shops and stop implementation.”
Our second stop was in Balqa’a province where we had a closer look at the operation of nattafat and it’s overall business operation with the customer’s selection of the chicken quantity needed and its following procedures. Slaughtering the chicken and then placing it into what is known as the nattafah- a machine used to extract the chickens’ feathers.
Muhammadin, an expatriate working in one of the shops, tells the story of what really goes behind the scenes of chicken slaughter and cleaning. “The waste, including feathers, intestines and other wastes are sold to vehicles making the rounds and are shipped to the factory in Muwaqqar,” he says. The waste goes without high temperature treatment and is re-manufactured to become fodder sold to chicken farms and used again to feed chickens.” This is known as “concentrated fodder” and is “used due to the high cost of imported fodder from abroad,” says Muhammadin.
Ministry of Industry and Trade sources said the ministry imports barley only in the amount of 850,000 tons while concentrated fodder is imported by the private sector. No accurate data is available on imported quantities. The same sources indicated that the price of local concentrated fodder ranges between 450 JD and 600 JD per metric ton, while a ton of imported fodder costs 680 JD. Fodder made of chicken waste stands cheaper at 460 JD a ton.
The secret Muhammadin was reluctant to reveal “whatever is accumulated from cutting chickens is sold in special bags to certain customers. Bags containing skin extracts (chicken leftovers), chicken heads, and feet, which are later directed to unknown places.”
But people responsible for selling chicken confirm that shawerma restaurants are using extracts of chicken to prepare shawerma skewers. You will find the nattafat everywhere you go in shawerma places in the surrounding areas where all poisoning cases took place in Rusaifeh, Baqa’a, Madaba and Zarqa’a. Such extracts are sold for .5 00 JD per bag. We noticed packages and bags are ready for sale undercutting tables as sales are occurring at a smaller scale due to the strict monitoring of municipalities and other official bodies as poisoning incidents reoccurred in Zarqa’a, Madaba and Rusaifeh. “Poisoning is resulting from mayonnaise and the chickens carrying the salmonella,” explained Adam Al-Abdallat, health director of Madaba.
Yet these bags soon find their way to the market where they are used in “preparing molds of grease used to rap shawerma skewers.” The grease coming from these wastes is used to form a greasy layer around shawerma skewers to cook faster withing a certain time.
Consumers are demanding that this “greasing process” be prohibited as it increases chances of bacteria reproduction leading to the spread of disease, especially salmonella. They are encouraging government officials and local councils to rehabilitate the nattafat to “enable them to sell cold chicken in order to stop wastes from leaking to the market, reduce poisoning cases and to provide citizens with good and healthy chicken.” To achieve this, health officials and consumers are calling upon the government to provide “subsidized loans to owners of chicken sale places and to monitor their workers.”
Continuos monitorization in the field showed that the method of slaughtering and the chicken’s status of hygiene contributes to the development of a fertile ground for the increase of viruses. The journey begins when the buyer arrives at the store. After negotiating a price, chickens are weighed and sent to the backroom. This room contains a hot-water barrel and another barrel for birds to be placed in after being slaughtered to drain their blood.
Birds are dipped into the hot water barrel before they are placed in a mobile machine that strips their feathers. The chickens are then cut into four or eight pieces as per customers’ orders.
We noticed that workers, especially expatriates, do not use gloves before handling chickens since the beginning of the process till its finish. Also, all wastes are piled in the same place, which is usually not greater than 6 square meters and contains all patterns conducive to bacteria reproduction, from the heat to the existence of blood and waste containers.
We took three different samples of chicken waste bags to a private lab to know their contents. But, the lab was not equipped to handle such a sample. Therefore, we headed to the Amman Municipality, for it’s proper equipment to analyze all kinds of bacteria and viruses at its community health department labs. Two samples were taken from two different areas; one from Ain Al-Basha, near the Baqa’a Refugee Camp, a few days before the poisoning took place at the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Despite care in carrying the sample (it was placed in a bag surrounded by ice), the sample was found to be polluted by doctors through carrying out what is called a sensory test which is conducted without using a lab.
Dr. Mervet Al-Abbadi, director of the community health department at the Amman Municipality confirmed that the sample was polluted and rejected a lab test. Dr. Abadi said that each test has two phases, “we first conduct a sensory test. Logically, what proves to be polluted by a sensory test will not be tested in the lab. The senses of smell and vision can tell when a sample is polluted since the smell indicates large bacterial activity.”
For more accuracy, new samples were sent from Ain Al-Basha to the nearby department of community health in order to assure the safe transport of the samples to the labs without being exposed to outside factors. Lab results obtained after a whole week of testing confirmed Dr. Abbadi’s findings regarding the existence of aerial and coliform bacteria, which cause the food to waste, in both samples. The E-coli bacteria, which Dr. Abbadi explained causes sickness was also found. Such bacteria results from the lack of hygiene when preparing food.
Dr. Abdul-Fattah Al-Kilani, head of veterinary doctors union stated that “finding this kind of bacteria in the sample indicates the food is polluted and should not be used for human consumption.” He adds that the result of bacteria infection, especially Ecoli, is shown in acute diarrhea and high temperatures.
In an attempt to mitigate poisoning cases, the Ministry of Health issued new instructions detailing conditions required at restaurants selling shawerma. Some of the most important requirements is the prohibition of cooking and selling outside the periphery of the restaurant to protect food from outside pollutants in addition to providing proper ventilation and ventilation equipment. Another requirement is that all white and red chicken parts should be fit for human consumption.
Health and municipality departments’ records in Zarqa’a indicate that nearly 160 metric tons of food items were destroyed last year because they were not fit for human consumption.
Dr. Fathi Saleh, former director of the Food and Drugs Public Institution, says that the root cause of the problem is “clearly the inadequate handling of eggs and chickens.” Health problems are compounded in this case “whether it happens through the outside or the inside of an egg,” says Dr. Saleh. “Lab analysis show that the first cause of poisoning is related to the fact that shawerma is not cooked well in high temperature to a deep color, which causes salmonella to appear.”
The second reason, according to Dr. Saleh, results from the emergence of bacteria through mayonnaise which is not exposed to high temperatures during manufacture which leads to illness when someone consumes a shawerma containing poisonous mayonnaise. Saleh does not hesitate to say that lab tests showed the existence of salmonella in the chicken and mayonnaise sample collected from the cities in which cases of poisoning took place. When asked again if remnants of chickens slaughtered at the nattafat could be used in shawerma places, Dr. Saleh stated, “from a practical point of view it is not worth it for owners of such places since they can import ready-made blocks and layers of frozen chicken.”He, however, stressed the importance of “supporting official monitoring …………. the rate of monitoring visits to places and institutions that handle food is two visits a month, which is not sufficient to ensure proper monitoring in light of changing consumption patterns and the increasing popularity of shawerma, which has become a popular meal in all cities and areas of the Kingdom.”
In light of statements by related parties that do not confirm the possibility of these remnants getting to shawerma places and the sale of such remnants by some nattafat to parties unable to handle them without causing harm to the public, new questions arise regarding the possibility of more poisoning in new areas.
The municipalities are recommending closing or rehabilitating the nattafat to enable them to sell chickens produced in Amman or other slaughterhouses.
Al-Salt mayor, engineer Salamah Al-Hiari, believes that the solution lies in pushing such places outside the borders of municipalities as a first phase or transforming it into places that sell ready or cold chickens. But he admitted that the matter “requires a comprehensive study of the situation of chicken farms and the ability of owners to slaughter birds at the Amman slaughterhouse. So we wait until we study the dimension of the question.”
Maher Abu Il-Samn, former Salt mayor, had previously warned that closing such places requires official bodies to provide a new slaughterhouse to produce chickens ready for distribution to these places so as not to deprive people working in them of their livelihoods. But Dr. Abbadi says that raising awareness is necessary under such difficult economic conditions that push people to look for cheaper means for making a living. She points out that the Amman municipality had stopped chicken sales in nattafat years ago. But, the municipality still finds such places working in the same way in Yarmouk, Ra’as Al-Ein, Sahab and Marj al-Hamam.
Last year, 50 places were closed in addition to 19 this year through monitoring and inspection campaigns and in line with item 8 of the slaughterhouse system (the City of Amman) which prohibits the slaughter of animals in commercial places. And despite the municipalities keenness to close such places as per the decision of the Administrative Governor, owners of some places still return back to work in contradiction to the law or move to an area close to a closed place.
The reality of health monitoring at the municipality level could be more difficult due to the electoral dimension which imposes itself and prevents specialized bodies there from carrying on with their duties. And the number of monitors is not sufficient. We found that there are 45 monitors in Rusaifeh. Their work is related to all health affairs and not restricted to chicken places. Their visit takes place once a month and only for a couple of minutes at best. Such visits are restricted to checking licensing or expatriates’ work permits, according to health monitoring workers.
In Zarqa’a there are 31 municipality monitors, and 25 at the health directorate. Their numbers do not exceed six in Al-Salt municipality in addition to one monitor for each of the eight municipality coverage areas.
Municipalities are dealing with the nattafat accordingto the municipality law issued this year granting municipalities the authority to monitor bread, meats, fish, fruits and vegetables and other food items and to take proper measures to prevent cheating, destroy bad goods, participate in fighting high prices, monitoring slaughtered animals, building slaughterhouses, testing animals and chicken ready for slaughter to prevent diseases and specify sale location, monitor its slaughter and routing remnants.
With the rising numbers of poisoning victims (the number of victims reached almost 200), the case of Bilal Al-Tillawi, the only youth to die after eating shawerma, is the most serious. Forensics established that his death resulted from salmonella which he had immediately after having shawerma.
Hussein Jarwan Al-Tillawi, Bilal’s father says that the case of his son is still with the criminal investigation department, indicating that government officials did not “recognize the tragedy in any way of form and released the owner of the shawerma place on bond.”
Despite the fact that government stuck to the decision to prevent the sale of shawerma (and reneged), ultimately this decision will not be the end of the road for what the Kingdom has witnessed recently. Official bodies will need to find fast and final solutions starting with opening the nattafat file widely and dealing with it in a strict and decisive manner.