Six Five employees of a popular Turkish fast-food chain in Qatar returned to court this week, facing trial for a suspected case of food poisoning last October that left several customers violently ill.
The defendants include the manager of Marmara Istanbul’s Bin Omran location, where a woman who was seven months pregnant ate before she was rushed to the hospital with severe abdominal pain, giving birth prematurely.
The Indian expat’s husband and two other children, who had also eaten at Marmara, also sought medical treatment after experiencing “intense” nausea followed by diarrhea.
The Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning subsequently shut down the eatery, which is located near TV Roundabout, for some two months following its inspection in the aftermath of the incident.
Pictures posted by the government department showed what appears to be dirty and moldy chopping boards, unclean worktops, BBQ grills blackened with caked-on food deposits and food lying around the surfaces.
The restaurant has since re-opened.
six five defendants – most of whom are Turkish and Egyptian nationals – are charged with handling and selling food unfit for human consumption, in violation of the health code. All were arrested and released from custody prior to their trial, which got underway last November.
The allegations are considered an “environmental felony,” meaning they are deemed a less serious charge than some other categories of criminal offenses.
If convicted, the restaurant employees – all of whom deny the charges and have pled not guilty – face prison sentences of between six months and a year and/or fines of between QR7,000 and QR15,000 (US$1,922 to $4,119), according to Law No. 8 Regulating Human Food Control, which was updated last year.
The defendants returned to court yesterday for a brief session during which the judge requested that reports prepared by a food-testing laboratory be translated into Arabic.
Speaking to Doha News, a lawyer involved in the case said the defense is arguing that the food samples taken after the reported poisoning cases were improperly collected from the restaurant and mishandled prior to testing.
The lawyer said that 40 samples were taken in total, 39 of which came back clean. The one that tested positive for bacteria had, according to the lawyer, been collected six hours before it was tested.
The lawyer argued that any bacteria found on the food could have developed after it was removed from the restaurant.
He declined to say what type of food was collected or expand upon how the defense is alleging it was mishandled.
The defense is also criticizing the prosecution for allegedly failing to specifically name the spoiled food that led to the victims’ illness.
“There was no proof that anything harmful happened to them as a result of eating food” from Marmara Istanbul, the lawyer said.
When reached by phone this afternoon, a supervisor at Marmara’s Bin Omran branch directed Doha News to a supervisor at the chain’s Al Sadd location, who declined to comment about the case.
The charges filed against the restaurant employees come amid a broader push by authorities to improve food safety in Qatar.
The law under which the Marmara Istanbul employees are charged was toughened in February 2014 to include harsher punishments for restaurants and food outlets caught breaching regulations.
Meanwhile, last April, the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning announced it would begin naming and shaming violators by publicizing its enforcement actions against eateries.
Currently, the law only allows the ministry to identify violators and release photos showing moldy ingredients, bug-infested meals and shuttered restaurants on its webpage in Arabic, limiting its exposure.
Officials have been mulling publishing the names of offending restaurants more widely by taking out ads in newspapers, for example.
The trial is scheduled to resume on April 6, when two Supreme Health Council employees – the chairman of the Central Food Laboratories as well as the director of food safety and health – are expected to testify.