Is Shawarma Dangerous?

May 4, 2022

Shawarma is a popular Levantine dish consisting of meat cut into thin slices, stacked in a cone-like shape, and roasted on a slowly-turning vertical rotisserie or spit. Originally made with lamb or mutton, it is now also made of chicken, turkey, beef, or veal. Thin slices are shaved off the cooked surface as it continuously rotates. Shawarma is one of the world’s most popular street foods, especially in Egypt, the countries of the Levant, the Caucasus, the Arabian Peninsula, and the rest of the Middle East.

Presently this famous Arab food become more popular, most people love fast food. Even among healthy food lovers, there are those who sometimes break loose and treat themselves to quick and hearty food in the form of purchased shawarma or burger. Unscrupulous shawarma producers, in pursuit of profit, often cook from stale products or neglect sanitary standards, so shawarma poisoning, unfortunately, is not uncommon. According to the International Classification of Diseases, shawarma poisoning (or as St. Petersburg shawarma is called), like most other cases of food poisoning, is classified under A05 as “Other bacterial food poisonings, not elsewhere classified”. 

Causes of shawarma poisoning

To prepare shawarma, the meat is cooked on a vertical grill, as it is ready, cut off the edges into a pan and chop them. Then they are placed in pita bread along with chopped vegetables, pouring this whole mixture with a hearty sauce. The reasons for poisoning with such a simple dish as shawarma can be as follows:

  • low-quality products (spoiled or poorly fried meat with pathogenic microbes, rotten vegetables, or with a high content of and, expired sauces and harmful fats);
  • non-compliance with the rules for storing food, cooking shawarma, unsanitary conditions (you can easily get poisoned by infectious microbes from dirty equipment, dishes, places of preparation);
  • When there is no demand for shawarma, the grilling is stopped, and then the bacterial growth starts in the veggie meat in the middle of the shawarma and the food becomes poisonous.
  • Timing is also an issue, if there are more customers, they cut the meat faster and serve it without proper cooking.
  • Leftover shawarma is kept in the fridge, then the meat in the middle of the shawarma starts to develop without getting cold and the food becomes poisonous.
  • The quality and storage conditions of mayonnaise play an important role in food security.

Symptoms of shawarma poisoning

  • nausea, vomiting;
  • diarrhea;
  • severe malaise, weakness, headaches, and abdominal pain;
  • increase in body temperature;
  • excessive salivation and sweating;
  • indigestion, rumbling in the stomach in case of poisoning; fetid stools;
  • with severe intoxication, it is also possible to affect the central nervous system with such signs of poisoning as impaired consciousness, and fainting. 

Food poisoning is common among people especially children and oldster because they do not have enough immunity to resist diseases. There are several definitions of food poisoning, but it is simply defined as any illness disorder occurring inhuman body specifically in the digestive system that is because of consuming food or drink which are contaminated with bacteria or toxins.

The symptoms of food poisoning are various between people, for example (Gamarra 2008) notes that:

The symptoms, varying in degree and combination, include abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and headaches; more serious cases can result in life-threatening neurologic, hepatic, and renal syndromes leading to permanent disability or death.

Although the multiplicity of foodborne diseases are transmitted through food, the food poisoning that occurs as a result of bacteria comes to the fore. Furthermore, food is an important factor in the growth of bacteria and it provides an appropriate medium for bacterial colonies. There are two types of microbial food poisoning; the first one is real poisoning microbes and which is caused by bacterial toxins which are secreted in food, such as Staphylococcus and Clostridium botulinum. The second type is food infection, and that because of the presence of microbes in food is great, such as salmonella.


Salmonella bacteria is an objectionable guest in homes and restaurants and the infection occur when human eat foods that contain salmonella microbes. This bacterium was named after Dr. Daniel Salmon discovered it in 1885(Davis n.d) (7). In general, salmonella is a germ that exists in the intestines of people and animals and is spread by their feces. There are different kinds of salmonella and all of them give rise to poisoning.

Salmonella Growth & survival

The suitable temperatures for salmonella growth are ranging from 35 c to 37c. However (ESR Ltd Company 2001) points out that, “salmonella TPHI can survive at 5 c and over 45 c (3). On the other hand, freezing foods hinder the growth of salmonella, but will not destroy it. Also, the pH of food influences the growth and survival of salmonella, the range in which salmonella will grow is about 3.8 – 9.5.

However, salmonella bacteria can only be destroyed by cooking food for enough time at a high temperature and each kind of food has a specific cooking temperature that is enough to destroy the bacteria, that’s not properly carried out in shawarma cooking.

Salmonella sources

Normally, salmonella exists in different places, so there are several sources of salmonella infection. The natural home is the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds (Cliver 1990, p. 189). Salmonella is usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. The major source is the food of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, milk and dairy products, eggs, and seafood, that have not been cooked properly, in addition to some fruits and vegetables. Certainly, contact with animals such as sheep and chickens or also pets transmit the bacteria. Although chicks and young birds carry salmonella in their feces, they look healthy and the symptoms are unapparent in the birds.

Salmonella around the world

In the last decade, foodborne illnesses are increased at the global level especially salmonella infections and due to many factors. Gamarra’s perspective is that changing food habits which are caused by travel and movement between countries is one of the essential factors, in addition to that the international trade and the globalization of food production led to the transmission of food microbes between countries (2008). The Outbreak of salmonella food poisoning which is caused by contaminated tomatoes in many states in the USA and Canada is an example.

A few days before (May 02, 2022) in South India, a 16-year-old schoolgirl died and as many as 18 others have fallen sick due to suspected food poisoning after consuming “rotten shawarma” at a food stall in Kerala.

“A team of doctors including a pediatrician examined Devananda (deceased), but could not save her life. Rest a total of 18 students are admitted in the hospital and all of them are in stable condition,” said Medical Officer on Sunday. After eating shawarma at a food stall, the students fell sick due to suspected food poisoning. The Kerala Health minister has directed an investigation into the incident and has sought a report from the authorities.

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