EU kebab-ban? All smoke and no roast

In some states, kebab meat is considered a "meat-based" preparation and thus outside the scope of EU regulation on phosphate additives. [Shanti Hesse/Shutterstock]

An objection aimed at banning phosphate from kebab meat, to be voted in the European Parliament on Tuesday (12 December), has started a Europe-wide controversy, fuelled by a German conservative MEP and fake news. EURACTIV France reports.

Last week the Environment, Health and Food Security Committee in the European Parliament rejected a proposal from the European Commission, which would have allowed continued use of phosphoric acid and its derivatives in kebab meat.

The subsequent headlines read: “The EU wants to ban kebabs.”

Snowball effect

German conservative MEP Renate Sommer (EPP) started the fire by posting on her Facebook page: “A ban on the addition of phosphates would put an end to the production of (kebab) skewers because there are still no technical solutions to stabilize skewers. That would mean the loss of thousands of jobs,” she wrote on November 28. The controversy quickly blew out of proportion, helped by German media, and then went international.

On 1 December, the Guardian published an article on EU kebab meat with a pun-packed title (“For pitta’s sake: EU kebab meat move could make doner a goner”). The English newspaper claimed that there are 200,000 jobs directly related to the kebab industry in Europe, without citing the source for this claim.

Russian-owned website Sputnik, known for spreading fake news stories and for its Euroskeptic stance, was quick to jump on the bandwagon.

Even the Brussels bubble called this a “deal breaker” for the EU.

All smoke no meat

The famous meat-filled wrap, invented in Berlin by the German Turkish community, became a staple of European street food in the 2000s. Phosphates are added to keep the meat moist despite the hours roasting on the spit.

The additives covered by the parliamentary objection are in fact already banned by the European Union in all ‘meat’ products but in some states, kebab meat is considered a “meat-based” product and thus outside the scope of regulation.

The question of adding phosphorus to kebab meat comes down to a debate on the precautionary principle, which says that a product is prohibited if there are serious doubts about its potential harm.

Green MEPs, including Bart Staes, the author of the objection, argue that phosphate derivatives in kebab meat pose a cardiovascular risk to consumers.

“We want people to be able to enjoy all their favourite foods, but without the addition of potentially dangerous and unnecessary food additives,” they said in a press release meant to clarify their intentions.

They cite two studies, published respectively in 2012 and 2013 in Germany and the United States, which demonstrate potential links between phosphate additives and cardiovascular complications.

A study conducted by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in 2013 invalidated the findings, but EFSA has said that it will re-evaluate the safety of phosphates food additives by 31 December 2018.

The European Bureau of Consumer Unions (BEUC) has tried to soften the controversy.

“No one wants to ban kebabs,” said the consumer representatives, who nonetheless see “no convincing technological need” to justify adding phosphate to meat.

The European Parliament will vote on the issue on Tuesday (12 December).

“I will speak against the proposed authorisation of phosphoric acid, diphosphates, triphosphates and polyphosphates in kebab meat,” said Marc Tarabella, a Belgian socialist MEP and Consumer Protection Officer at the European Parliament.

“There are serious doubts about these food additives with potentially significant and negative consequences for the health of citizens. I am not against the Kebab but against additives that endanger the health of citizens.”

Subscribe to our newsletters