WINDSOR, Ont. -- Windsor-Essex County Health Unit inspectors are forcing Lebanese restaurants to take a popular traditional food off their menus because it is made with raw ground meat.
Kibbeh, a signature ground meat dish, has been served at Lebanese restaurants for years, but a report of contaminated raw kibbeh in Ottawa late last year has health inspectors taking a tougher stand.
Restaurant owners say the sudden crackdown is costing them sales and upsetting longtime customers.
“No warning, no heads up, nothing. They just told us you can’t sell it anymore,” said Mohamad Nizam, who’s owned and operated Al-Sabeel restaurant, at 1129 Wyandotte St. E., for seven years. “They didn’t send us any letters.”
Nizam and other restaurant owners expressed pride in their raw kibbeh, which they say is popular with customers of all backgrounds.
Many came specifically for his recipe, which he makes with fresh ground beef and a special recipe of seasonings, Nizam said. Raw kibbeh can also be made with fresh ground lamb and ingredients such as bulgur wheat.
“This is not a side dish. It’s our tradition,” Nizam said.
Imad Najjar, who owns Mazaar, at 372 Ouellette Ave., plans to find a way to prepare raw kibbeh that complies with regulations and food safety concerns. He said he is concerned about a blanket ban being enforced in Windsor for a food item “that hasn’t been an issue.”
At El-Mayor restaurant, 936 Wyandotte St. E., servers said customers are dismayed and disappointed they can no longer order their favourite kibbeh.
“They’re extremely disappointed,” said Lina Tannous, a server. She said a recent large order of takeout food was cancelled when the customer learned the raw kibbeh was no longer available.
“We’re losing customers. We’re losing valuable customers,” Tannous said. “They’re not happy,” agreed her co-worker Enas Alkayyal.
Lina Abbas, with the popular, family-owned El-Mayor restaurant, called the health unit’s move “a big problem for us. It’s the No. 1, popular Lebanese dish.”
Abbas said staff simply say the restaurant can no longer serve the dish. “People are very disappointed.”
The local health unit started investigating after the Ottawa incident and was concerned outside ground meat product was being brought to restaurants from elsewhere, said Mike Tudor, manager of health inspection.
Inspectors had gone out and looked at the preparation and handling of raw kibbeh in restaurants, Tudor said.
The primary health concern is the use of raw ground meat, he said. “It hasn’t been treated. There’s been no treatment that reduces the pathogens.”
“Because it’s from an outside source just adds to the concern,” Tudor said.
Provincial regulations require ground meat cooked to an internal temperature of at least 71C for at least 15 seconds. Tudor said raw fish can be served for sushi because freezing is required at some point to eliminate parasites associated with fish.
Raw ground meat is considered already contaminated by bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens, he said.
Abbas and Tannous at El-Mayor say they’ve never experienced food safety issues with raw kibbeh.
“A lot of customers have Lebanese background and they have been raised on raw meat,” Tannous said.
At Mazaar, Najjar said the issue might have been resolved without the need for a ban.
“It would have been nice to be invited and explained why it can’t be served,” Najjar said. “At the end of the day, I don’t want to cause any health hazard for customers.”
Abbas is keeping track of customer response and Nizam said he’s heard from customers at Al-Sabeel who plan to take steps with the aim of bringing raw kibbeh back on the menu.
For his part, Tudor said “Our job is to protect the public. That’s what the regulations were put in place for and that’s what we’re trying to do.”