Commentary: Meat fit for a maharajah

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With all the focus on China—trade issues, currency concerns, human rights violations, and of course the country’s growing military might—Americans sometimes forget that there’s another emerging world power, a marketplace teeming with 1.2 billion consumers and poised to become a global economic force: India.

In fact, the middle class in India alone now equals our entire population, and those 300-plus million people are rapidly adopting western lifestyles. That’s not all good, of course, but one interesting and certainly impactful trend is that among the world’s largest population of vegetarians, meat-eating is becoming much more popular.

UN statistics estimate that about 40% of Indians don’t eat meat, which is a greater percentage than  anywhere else in the world. Despite that, a recent analysis by the German Deustche Welle news source stated that since 2000, the total amount of meat consumed in India has more than doubled. According to the latest statistics from the World Food Program, in 2009 per capita consumption exceeded 12 lbs. per year.

Much of that increase is due to the explosive growth of U.S. and European fast-food chains that are now prominent in virtually every major city in India. Not surprisingly, these restaurants are very popular with young families and quite crowded on weekends, which isn’t all that different from the good old USA.

Equally predictable, not everyone is happy about that trend.

Young people find them particularly enticing, and at the weekends the restaurants are full to bursting. In the big metropolises like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai or Kolkata they're very popular with families, who like to gather over burgers, fries and Coke at McDonalds, or with a box of deep-fried breaded chicken nuggets at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Dr. Sanjay Sanadhya, a New Delhi-based diabetes expert quoted in the Deustche Welle piece, expressed concern. “People in India are just imitating the Western lifestyle,” he said. “Overall, we’re seeing them become distanced from their own cultural traditions.”

Wanting to conform

The trend is not surprising, given the rapid globalization of India’s economy, the increasing mobility of millions of business people and the expanding discretionary income now enjoyed my many millions of professionals there. Many in the Indian middle class—especially young people—see meat-eating as part of a cosmopolitan lifestyle and a certain level of economic attainment, seeing as how even fast food can be more expensive than much of India’s traditional vegetarian fare.

It wouldn’t be hard to make the case that the emergence of a fast-food culture anywhere in the world isn’t an unmitigated blessing. But the overall evolution of dietary preferences, especially in India, where the Hinduism proscribes eating meat—devout practitioners believe that the cow is a sacred animal, and it’s forbidden to slaughter them in India—is evidence of an observation made many times in this space: Other than religious taboos, the only thing that keeps much of the world from eating animal foods is money—the lack thereof.

Provide economic opportunity for formerly poverty-stricken people, and rising incomes almost guarantee that their diets will shift toward eating more meat, poultry and dairy products. That has been the human experience for millennia, and although the anti-industry food activists wring their hands over it, the fact is that when people can afford it, they want to eat meat.

Does that mean only fast-food fare? Of course, not. Young people flocking to McDonald’s or KFC in countries across Asia or Latin America is much more an attempt to mimic western lifestyles, rather than nutritional choices.

As the German article noted, “Big fast-food chains like McDonald’s have adapted to the Indian market and don’t serve beef burgers. Instead, it offers the so-called ‘Chicken Maharajah Burger,’ which, according to the [ads], will make anyone eating it feel like a maharajah. Clever marketing using Bollywood and cricket stars is presumably one of the reasons why more and more people all over India are eating meat and fast-food.”

Presumably.

I suppose it is ironic that the country where Mahatma Gandhi, the political and spiritual leader of Indian independence in the 1940s and a strict vegetarian, is now embracing meat-eating. For Gandhi, the renunciation of all forms of violence began with the food choices—in other words, religious dogma.

Absent such a spiritual motivation, people don’t “naturally” eschew the consumption of animal foods. Quite the opposite.

Raising livestock, producing meat products and enjoying the sensory and dietary contributions of meat, poultry and dairy products—that’s what’s natural and normal.

Even in India.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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