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Saturday, 16 May 2015

Have a Shawarma, Donair or Gyro kebab for lunch today

Shawarma, Donair or Gyro kebab - What are the food safety risks?

by Jim Chan.

What is a Donair Kebab?

First, a donair kebab is not a shish-kebab. Donair kebab, as mentioned in Ottoman travel books of the 18th century (history of Donair) ''is a popular food with cut of thin slices of minced and seasoned meat (beef, lamb or chicken) grilling on a vertical, rotating spit or cylindrical device, serve on unleavened bread with fresh green salad and sauce''. 

What is the difference between Shawarma or Gyro kebab?

There are two types of donairs:

1. Donairs or Gyros gyro (History of Gyros) 'is a Greek dish of meat roasted or grilled on a vertical spit and usually served in a pita bread with tomato, onion, and tzatziki sauce'. The 
common donairs or gyros nowadays is usually made with ground meat that is formed into a cone shape and frozen.

2. Shawarma or Shawurma -  This is a Levantine Arab type of meat preparation using lamb,poultry, beef, veal or mixed meats that are marinated before being stacked on a vertical skewer or spit.

Cooking and serving method: Meat slices are placed or stacked on a vertical spit in a commercial donair cooking/grilling oven unit that is commonly used in restaurants 
and donair shops (photo - right). 

The cones of donair meat are usually grilled or roasted on the rotating spit slowly until the outer layer is cooked to a safe temperature (by using a probe thermometer to ensure meat has reached the specific internal temperature).

Thin slices of cooked meats are cut off the block of meat for serving, usually serve on a pita or a slice of unleavened bread. The remainder of the meat is kept heated on the rotating spit throughout the day.

What are the food safety risks?

There are a lot of food handling steps when it comes to processing, cooking and assembling donair products. The potential food safety hazards or risks associated with both types of products are considered similar because both  
are made from thin layers of raw sliced meats stacked on top of one another (see photo - left) that have greatly increased surface areas where bacteria contamination can occur, thus resembling the food safety risk of ground meat products. If not processed hygienically and cooked to a safe temperature, donair products can pose a food safety risk for consumers as some of the ingredients are capable of supporting and allowing the rapid growth of pathogens such as Salmonella,  E. coli that can cause food-borne illness outbreaks. In Canada, Calgary Health Region identified an outbreak of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 infection in September 2004 that linked to donairs. 

Other critical control points observed during food safety inspection including:
  • Raw meat juice dripping from the bottom of a meat cone (Photo - above left) during
    processing, storage and even cooking. This can increase the risk of cross-contamination in the food preparation areas as pathogens in raw meat juice can contaminate surfaces, utensils and even other cooked food. 
  • The knife and the 'catch pan' are often stored directly under the meat cone in the donair cooking/grilling oven. Raw meat juice dripping from the cone bottom during the cooking process can contaminate the utensils, especially the 'catch pan' (Photo showing catch pan being placed under the meat cone where raw meat juice can drip into the pan - right). The utensils can cross-contaminate cooked meat when being used to cut and hold sliced meat during serving.
  • Food handler not using a probe food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the cooked area of the meat cone before cutting. 
Between 2005 and 2006, there were three food-borne illness outbreaks in Canada that linked to the consumption of donair products. In response to the risks related to donair and 
similar meat products including shawarma, donair and gyro, the federal government's national donair safety committee was formed in 2005 to study donair preparation across Canada and released a report in May 2008 which the government safety committee provided several food safety recommendations on safe processing and handling of donair meat products (including a recommendation for a secondary cooking step to ensure the meat is fully cooked to reduce food-borne illness risk). The recommendations in the report can be used by local public health agencies to implement procedures using the recommendations for their inspection program (Fact sheet on Donairs - University of Guelph).

How can donair products be processed and handled safely in food establishments?

In making commercial donair products safe, the food handlers should follow the food safety steps of Clean-Separate-Cook-Chill/heat :


  • Remember to wash hands thoroughly with hot soapy water and dry them before preparing food and after touching raw meat, especially chicken, and other raw foods.
  • Thoroughly clean all cooking equipment, utensils and food contact surfaces like food storage containers and cutting boards after preparing raw food such as meat, and before contact with other food. Then sanitize them with a bleach-water solution (5 ml/1 tsp of bleach with 750 ml/3 cups of water).
  • Do not prepare or handle food when ill, especially if suffering from gastrointestinal illness with symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea.


Prevent cross contamination of food:

  • Keep raw and cooked meats separate during storage, transportation and processing as pathogens from raw meat can contaminate the cooked meat. 
  • Store raw meat, especially poultry in containers with tight fitting lids and place them in refrigerator below other food to prevent raw meat juice dripping onto ready-to-eat foods.


  • Cooking food to the proper internal temperature kills harmful bacteria and prevent food
    poisoning. The best way to ensure the donair meat is cooked to the proper internal temperature is to use a probe thermometer.
  • Start cooking the cone of donair meat immediately after removing it from cold storage and avoid letting it sit at room temperature or in the Danger Zone
  • Any counter or food contact surfaces contaminated by raw meat juice should be washed and sanitized. 
  • Ensure meat has reached a safe internal cooking temperature as indicated in the 
    Cooking and Reheating Temperatures for Hazardous Foods chart from Toronto Public Health (see photo - right). It is important to know what internal temperature the meat needs to reach to be safe to eat, as safe cooking temperatures vary in different types of meats. Same applies to re-heating cooked meats, use a food thermometer to ensure meat reheated to a safe internal temperature.
  • Keep or store cooked meat above 60°C / 140 °F until served. Use a food thermometer to check holding temperatures.
  • Do not use any uncooked donair meat left over from the previous day, unless it was placed directly into the freezer once cooking had stopped. This ensures the meat is rapidly cooled to -18 °C / 0 °F  in a short time.


Temperature control:

  • Frozen kebab meat should be kept frozen at -18 °C /0 °F until used.
  • Keep fresh sliced or minced raw meat for making donair under refrigeration at 4°C / 40 °F until ready for use. Refrigerate freshly made cones of meat while it is setting. 
  • When thawing frozen donair meat before cooking, avoid thawing it on the counter within the Danger Zone temperature, always thaw meat under refrigeration temperature 4°C / 40 °F.
  • Refrigerate meat and all potentially hazardous food (including dairy-based sauces), at or below 4°C / 40 °F. Check with a thermometer.
  • Avoid storing or leaving ready-to-eat foods in the Danger Zone temperature longer than 2 hours. Keep or store cooked meat above 60°C / 140 °F until served. Use a food thermometer to check holding temperatures.

Why avoid the Danger Zone?
The temperatures in between °C/41 ºF to 60 °C/135 ºF are in the Danger Zone. When perishable or hazardous food is left in this temperature range, bacteria can grow very fast and produce toxins that can cause food poisoning (most toxins from pathogens are heat stable and cannot be destroyed by regular cooking temperature).

Additional food safety tips

  • Donair shops or restaurants should use large commercial donair cooking/grilling oven or rotisseries oven that designed to cook the large cones or loaves of meat.
  • Always use a probe food thermometer to check internal temperature to ensure the portion of cooked area of the meat cone is at a safe temperature before cutting (Photo above - Health inspector showing food handler how to use a probe thermometer to check meat temperature).
  • Meat not sold at the end of the day should be cut into smaller portions or pieces so they can freeze quickly to prevent bacterial growth .
  • To improve food safety and to reduce food waste, use a smaller cone of meat as it would allow heat to penetrate deeper into the meat faster and prevent undercooked donair meat inadvertently being sliced off and served. 
  • Double-cooking (Photo - right) such as grilling or cooking the meat slices again before serving will ensure meat is safe. 

(All photos used in this article are properties of Jim Chan, Health Inspector's Notebook in

Under cooked meat can be a serious food safety risk and can increase the risk of food poisoning

Food Safety Video

Related links
Food poisoning - Ontario Ministry of Health
Calgary Health Region identified an outbreak of Escherichia coli 0157:H7 infection in September 2004
Grill meat - Donair
Management of the Risks Related to Consumption of Donairs and Similar Products1 (Gyros, Kebabs, Chawarmas and Shawarmas)
Dubai: New food safety rules covering the hugely popular shawarma
CBC news coverage on the safety group wraps up study of donairs
Kerala eateries raided after food poisoning death
Fact sheet on Donairs - University of Guelph


  1. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for writing about this.

    I'm unclear on how donair kebabs don't cause more food poisoning than they do if the meat nearer the rod can potentially be several hours in a temperature near the danger zone before the carver gets to it.

    This document gives a data point of "89.3% of the kebabs had a deep internal temperature of less than 75’C."

    As you mentioned, since the kebab is made up of thin slices that have been marinated and stacked there is more potential for bacteria to be introduced inside the kebab.

    My understanding is that the when roasting a whole piece of meat--that can take several hours--any contamination would usually occur only on the exposed surfaces which are the first to reach a safe temperature, but this isn't the case here, it is like hamburger meat where much more area has been exposed.

    What am I missing?

    Is the only guard keeping you safe when having a gyro at night--from a spit that has been going since morning--just the quality of preparation that kept bacteria out of the meat?

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I've studied & inspected a number of kebab shops and restaurants before my retirement from public health over a year ago. The photos in this article were taken in one of the research/inspection visit. the data only showed the number of outbreaks but I suspected many individual cases have not been reported or not counted in the outbreak data, also possible that suspected food items have not been asked by medical professionals when patients attended clinic or hospitals. We always treat donair meat the same as ground meat and the regulation in Ontario Canada specified ground beef (burger or meat loaf) to be cooked to an internal temp. of 71 C, for mixed meats, the temp. is 74 C. Also, we have implemented requirement for a 'second cooking' prior to serving. So even the cooked layer is under 75 C, as long as the requirement of 71 C for beef & 74 C for mixed meat, the risk is still low. My main concern is not during the lunch or dinner rush but the time between lunch & dinner, which some operators would turn off the over or grill and let the 1/2 cooked meat cone sit in the Danger Zone for few hours, than turn on again before dinner rush. I think as long as food handlers continue to do the 'second cooking' before serving, the risk will be low.

    2. Hi Jim,

      Quoting from the document below from the University of Guelph:

      "Currie et al. (2007) found that a donair cone could last up to a full day undergoing surface heating while the center of the cone remained raw or partially cooked."

      Taking the worst case of a raw center and eating the last slivers 12 hours after it was made--but assuming it was cooked fully to 74 C, is that safe?

      I've eaten many kebabs late at night so I've must have been close the above situation once or twice--and I have never gotten sick.

      On the other hand it sounds like equivalent of taking a hamburger patty, wrapping it up, and leaving it out in the yard for 12 hours before getting around to grilling it. Which to me sounds like its going to upset my body somehow.

      What am I missing?

  2. This is a good guideline on handling & processing Kabas from University of Guelph

  3. Mmm, this looks delicious! Thanks for sharing. I think I just found my breakfast for tomorrow…
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  4. Good information on Indian recipe. its quite different from other posts,,,,Thanks.. it looks amazing kathi roll & kebabs

    1. Thanks Sony, I love trying different types of street food & we have so many different cultural food restaurants to choose from in Toronto.

  5. Delicious, tasty, superb, amazing, beautiful, unbelievable... I just got water in my mouth after seeing your recipe, i just say thanks to you it is fantastic recipe.order desserts online in delhi

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  8. Hi this is a very material, my wife will attend a training in preparing shawarma this month, and we are planning to have a small kiosk serving this as our main product. Sir/ Ma'am what can you advice, prior to our starting our small kiosk (enterprise). thanks and God speed

    Joseph (Philippines)

    1. Hi Joseph, thanks for the message. Before starting a food business, I strongly suggest contacting the local health official as well as fire department to make sure the food establishment is in full compliant (of local food safety and fire regulations & requirements). The requirements may be different in various countries but as for food safety, most likely similar as I have indicated in my article. Good luck to your business and wish you and your wife success in this shawarma food enterprise.

  9. Hi Jim, I am a HSE practitioner in my country. I work in a fast food.. I see this Sharwama beef displayed as unhygienic not should not be acceptable.
    Is it not necessary to have this displayed beef or poultry products covered on display?
    For instance covering with foil
    Pls I want a feedback as soon as possible.
    Thank you

    1. Hi Georgy, public health and University of Guelph done a joint evaluation and inspectors have monitored the preparation & serving of Shawama type of meat and we have developed a guideline for operators. The most serious infraction identified was inadequte cooking and slicing which raw or undercooked meat being served. One requirement implemented was to require operator to do a secondary reheating (on grill, pan or BBQ) before serving. The open display is not as serious than temperature abuse. This is the fact sheet from the study

  10. Good information, we have many Shawarma/Donair shops in New York City and I think most of them tried to obey food safety rules but with the way the meat cones are being handled and cooked in very small stores, I have seen so many infractions such as no hand washing, meat left sitting on floor, meat not properly cooked and many times, I can see blood dripping onto cooked sliced meat....


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