A district judge and a local authority in East London have come under fire for inferring kebab shops are unregulated and unhygienic following a case involving serious breaches of food hygiene at a branch of McDonald’s.
The initial problem arose in Judge Susan Holdham’s choice of words when she passed judgment on Leytonstone McDonald’s. The burger restaurant was fined £475,000 and £22,000 in costs at Thames Magistrates Court on Tuesday, 2 May, after environmental officers from Waltham Forest Council presented evidence of rodent infestation in its kitchen.
“When customers go to McDonald’s, they expect and have the right to expect the highest standards in food hygiene. This is not some backstreet burger or kebab bar – children go to McDonald’s as a treat,” Judge Holdham said as part of her ruling in court.
The judge’s unnecessary reference denigrating kebab eateries as being outside of food laws and less stringent on hygiene has been roundly condemned by kebab industry figures and members of the Turkish community.
The Kebab Alliance calls for apology and better training
The Kebab Alliance said the district judge’s remarks were “unacceptable and deeply offensive”. The industry body called for her to apologise for causing “reputational damage” and said there should be “better training” for officials to avoid “such statements”.
“It’s unacceptable & deeply offensive for Judge Susan Holdham to suggest kebab shops are unhygienic in her ruling. Such a comparison was unnecessary and causes significant reputational damage to hardworking kebab shop owners and workers.
“There needs to be an apology and better training to avoid such statements,” tweeted The Kebab Alliance that is headed by Ibrahim Dogus.
It’s unacceptable & deeply offensive for Judge Susan Holdham to suggest kebab shops are unhygienic in her ruling. Such a comparison was unnecessary and causes significant reputational damage to hardworking kebab shop owners and workers. @stellacreasy @MPIainDS https://t.co/Vf7gRv91s4
— The Kebab Alliance (@KebabAlliance) May 7, 2023
In a statement to T-VINE, Timur Ekingen, editor of kebab sector trade magazine BritShish, agreed. He described the judge’s comments, and council’s decision to share them, as a “dreadful smear” and called on both to apologise.
“The judge’s remarks were outrageous, inaccurate, and deeply offensive. They imply that kebab businesses are somehow excused from or uncaring about the UK’s stringent food laws and therefore unhygienic.
“This is a dreadful smear against the many hard-working entrepreneurs that bring vibrancy, jobs, and delicious food to communities up and down the UK.
“It would have been perfectly possible for the judge to criticise that individual McDonald’s branch without denigrating the entire British Kebab Industry. Worse still, Waltham Forest Council deemed it appropriate to not only repeat but also share these awful comments. I believe kebab business owners are owed an apology from both the judge and local authority over these remarks,” said Mr Ekingen.
Baroness Hussein-Ece tweeted about the judge’s slur, calling it “Ironic, given that ‘kebab shops’ are subject to exactly the same hygiene laws as other fast food outlets”.
Others on social media described the judge’s offensive remarks, and the decision by Waltham Forest Council’s digital media team to share them, as “bizarre” and “racist”.
About the McDonald’s case
The case against Leytonstone McDonald’s was brought by Waltham Forest Council after a customer reported finding mouse droppings in the store in 2021.
Environmental officers opened an investigation into the East London restaurant, capturing evidence of its dirty kitchen, which was shared in court and, after the verdict, with media and on the council’s social media pages.
The revoting images showed mouse droppings and the decomposing remains of a rodent in the kitchen.
Although the council’s press statement about the case didn’t mention Judge Holdham’s kebab slur, its digital media team chose to include these words as part of their social media communications. Their Facebook and Twitter posts shared dozens of times.
The story of Leytonstone McDonald’s rodent infestation and fine, along with the judge’s kebab smear, have featured in many media across Britain and abroad.
Requirement for Equal Treatment
Judge Holdham’s throwaway remark about “backstreet kebab bars” and the significant media and social media coverage they have received could negatively impact the perception of this cooked meat dish.
Kebabs are a central to the cuisine of many nations and diverse communities in Britain including Turks, Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Many are involved in the UK’s kebab sector, which is annually worth £2.8bn to the British economy and employs more than 200,000 people, according to The Kebab Alliance.
When asked for a copy of the judge’s ruling, T-VINE was told “the judgment in this case was given orally rather than in written format”.
A spokesperson for the Judicial Office said they are “not able to comment on individual cases”, and when quizzed about what training judges receive for any prejudice or unconscious bias, T-VINE was told:
“The Equal Treatment Bench Book is a resource for judges which aims to increase awareness and understanding of the different circumstances of people appearing in courts and tribunals. It helps enable effective communication and suggests steps which should increase participation by all parties.”
Produced by the Judicial College of England and Wales, the lengthy document – over 500 pages long – highlights how “a thoughtless comment, throw away remark” by a judge could create “an impression of prejudice”.
It also addresses “unconscious prejudice (demonstrating prejudice without realising it)”, acknowledging that this, “is more difficult to tackle and may be the result of ignorance or lack of awareness.”
The Equal Treatment Bench Book also states that, “Ignorance of the cultures, beliefs and disadvantages of others encourages prejudice. It is for judges to ensure that they are properly informed and aware of such matters, both in general and where the need arises in a specific case.”
Waltham Forest Council “has duty to accurately report case”
Waltham Forest Council sent us this response to our questions about why its digital media team chose to run with the district judge’s damaging remarks and whether they were planning any action to remedy the situation.
Cllr Khevyn Limbajee, Cabinet Member for Community Safety, said: “Waltham Forest Council’s responsibility is to its residents and ensuring all restaurants and food outlets across the borough adhere to the appropriate hygiene standards. This case serves as a warning to all food outlets that the council will not tolerate breaches in food safety or hygiene and will prosecute where laws are violated.
“The council has a duty therefore to accurately report on this case and while it welcomes the verdict, the comments made by the judge in regard to kebab shops are not those held by the council.”
Despite efforts to distance themselves from the judge’s kebab smear, Waltham Forest Council have not removed the offending words from their social media pages.
Council’s poor reputation over Turkish Cypriot discrimination
The Labour-run local authority already has a poor reputation among British Turks for allowing the flag of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) to be desecrated two years ago.
The incident occurred in 2021 after the local Turkish Cypriot community raised the TRNC flag on a flagpole outside Waltham Forest Town Hall as part of its 15 November Independence Day celebrations, in a ceremony authorised by the Council as part of its inclusivity policy of allowing diverse communities in the borough to celebrate their special days. The flag was set to remain displayed until sunset.
Bowing down to racist pressure from the National Federation of (Greek) Cypriots and the Greek Cypriot High Commission in London, a few hours after being hoisted the Council Leader Grace Williams ordered the Turkish Cypriot flag to be removed. The flag was seen being dragged along the floor and dumped in a store room inside the town hall.
Cllr Williams then issued an offensive, “racially charged”, statement apologising for the flag’s displaying and promising never to allow it to be hoisted again.
Hundreds of people sent in complaint letters about the Council and Grace Williams’ Turkophobic behaviour, and over 3,000 people signed a petition calling for the council leader to “resign immediately for discriminating against Turkish Cypriots and for her deeply offensive, racist statement against our community.”
Waltham Forest Council refused to apologise or remove its offensive statement, and no action has been taken against Grace Williams.
This story was updated on 10 May 2023 to include a response from Waltham Forest Council.