BERLIN – The doner kebab, that grilled fast-food sandwich which is the gastronomic equivalent of an American hamburger in many European cities, is under fire.
The European Union's legislature is moving to ban the phosphates used in the slabs of meat at the heart of the popular street snack that originated in Turkey. Up-in-arms kebab vendors in Germany have skewered the idea.
EU lawmakers are citing health concerns based on studies that linked phosphates to cardiovascular disease. Owners of takeout restaurants and industry groups claim the additives are needed to keep seasoned kebab meat juicy and flavorful, both during transport and on the vertical retail rotisseries where it is cooked.
Fueling the brouhaha is that some sausages containing phosphates are allowed to be sold in EU countries and would not be affected by any move involving kebab meat.
The disparity has some vendors alleging that "doner discrimination" was cooked up deliberately to disadvantage Turkish-owned businesses.
"They are looking for ways to hurt Turkish businesses here," said Baris Donmez, the owner of a 24-hour kebab bistro in Berlin's Mitte district. "Such a ban would be the biggest pile of garbage imaginable."
The kebab issue came up when the EU's executive Commission proposed to officially authorize the use of phosphates in the lamb, mutton, beef or veal that goes onto a shop spit. Some other meats had previously received such clearance.
The proposal ran into trouble in the European Parliament earlier this week when its Health Committee voted 32-22 to oppose it. Based on more recent health studies, legislators expressed concern that carving out blanket approval for kebab meat could put Europeans at greater risk of heart disease.
A rejection by the full Parliament when it meets in two weeks would send the proposal back to the Commission — and keep the mighty kebab lingering in limbo.
Just the threat of any changes to the beloved dish — in Europe, shaved kebab meat usually comes stuffed into pita bread with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions and one, or several, dressings — made headlines in Germany, where the doner kebab is the late night grub of choice.
"If the European Parliament gets its way, this would be the death sentence for the entire doner kebab industry in the European Union," Kenan Koyuncu of the German Association of Doner Kebab Producers told Germany's Bild daily newspaper.
Renate Sommer, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party in the European Parliament, wrote on Facebook that "a ban of the phosphate addition would be the end of doner production and would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs."
According to daily Frankfurter Rundschau there are some 16,000 doner restaurants in Germany and 3 million of the dishes are slung daily. Tens of thousands of people are employed in the multi-billion euro (dollar) industry.
The doner sandwich is in fact a recent European interpretation of the Turkish roast classic which was introduced to Germany by immigrants from Turkey. In recent years the "Berlin doner" variety has even spread to London and New York.
Boosted by such popularity, Donmez is convinced the ban of the chemical in kebab meat will never be implemented in Germany.
"Germans love doner," he said, looking at the long line of lunch customers at his Rosenthaler Grill und Schlemmerbuffet restaurant. "Nobody's going to take away it away from them."
Raf Casert reported from Brussels. Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.