AMMAN: When Abeer Saeed, 40 years old, and her family wanted a shawarma sandwich, they did not expect to end up in the local hospital. Saeed and her husband, two daughters and a niece live in Baqaa camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.
Talking to Arab News from a hospital bed, she said that soon after eating the chicken shawarma, she felt feverish, with sharp pain and diarrhea. The same symptoms were experienced by all other family members as they headed to the local hospital only to find tens of others suffering from what was believed to be food poisoning.
Mohammad Abed, director of the local Prince Hussein hospital in Ain Al-Basha, told reporters that a 5-year-old child arrived at the hospital with major organ failure. A married man who was unable to find available hospital beds was sent home, but his condition deteriorated, and he passed away.
Prime Minister Omar Razzaz appointed a high-level investigative committee headed by several ministers, including Minister of Research and Higher Education Muhyieddeen Touq, president of the Jordan University of Science and Technology and deputy head of the Royal Scientific Society. The committee was given wide powers to investigate the cause of the problem and to recommend solutions.
Health Minister Saad Jaber said that the child, along with 700 others, had been affected by food poisoning after consuming contaminated chickens. The As-Salt attorney general’s office said that the owner of the warehouse that distributed the chickens has been remanded to the As-Salt prison for a week.
Nizar Mhaidat, head of Jordan’s Food and Drug Administration, said that lab tests showed that the uncooked chicken used for the shawarma sandwich was affected by Enterococcus faecalis and campylobacter/bacillus cereus bacteria.
Mhaidat said that food inspectors made 500 field visits in which 316 warnings were issued and 74 food enterprises were stopped. In addition, 23 locations were permanently closed with red wax as a result of serious food violations.
He added that 8,500 kg of unusable food have been destroyed and that 59 laboratory specimens were checked in locations throughout Jordan, concluding that the center involved in exporting meat and chicken was the main cause of the food poisoning in Baqaa. Jordan Food and Drug Administration officials confirm that they have no offices in the Baqaa area where the incidents occurred despite the fact that over 100,000 people live in a very cramped facility.
Senior health experts, however, have told Arab News that what happened was not food poisoning but rather contamination.
“What we have here is a clear case of food contamination, possibly as a result of a lack of supervision of the food chain,” a senior health source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Arab News.
The source said that Jordan’s food safety standards are compatible with international and, specifically, European standards. The problem appears to be with the partial relaxation of the supervision of the food chain, most likely because health inspectors are overburdened in managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Medical experts in Jordan are confident that the current crisis will pass and that stricter supervision mechanisms will be installed to ensure that the public is protected.