Cows become less sacred for some Indians
Amrit Dhillon in New Delhi
In a country where 80 per cent of the population believe the cow is sacred, it seems Indians have developed more of a taste for beef, according to a new US Agriculture Department report.
For Hindus, the cow is a revered animal, and eating beef is abhorred in many parts of the country. The slaughter of cows is banned in states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
McDonald's in India has never had beef burgers on the menu for fear of offending Hindus. Nor does it sell pork because 13 per cent of the population is Muslim. Instead, it has worked around cultural and religious sensitivities to certain foods by only offering fish, chicken and vegetable on its menu.
But in a report entitled 'India Livestock and Products Annual 2008', the American Agriculture Department says beef consumption is rising, and predicts consumption will grow by 5 per cent to 1.94 million tonnes next year.
The findings are likely to annoy Hindu devotees as they regard any Hindu who consumes beef as an apostate.
'Beef is increasingly becoming popular as a protein source compared to pulses, some of which have become more expensive,' the report said.
Of the Indians who are eating more beef, many are likely to be Muslims and Christians.
The report also said the younger generation were changing their food habits to non-vegetarian and other processed foods.
'Consequently, with rising income levels, domestic meat consumption has the potential to rise further,' it noted.
Delhi University history Professor D.N. Jha said the report 'explodes the myth that still persists that Hindus don't eat beef. It's well known that low caste Hindus eat beef because they can't afford mutton, but other castes also eat beef and always have'.
Professor Jha caused a storm of controversy in 2001 in a book in which he claimed that ancient Indians ate beef. Hardline Hindus responded with death threats, saying the claims were offensive.
But Hindus in Kerala, south India, for example, have a long tradition of eating beef. Koothoor Davies, a researcher at the Institute of Infectious Diseases in Kerala, said 80 per cent of Kerala's 30 million people ate beef.
In fact, he encourages other Indians to eat more beef because he claims, based on his own research, beef-eaters are less prone to contracting malaria.
'We have hardly any incidence of malaria in Kerala and I think it is because the parasite does not multiply in humans who eat beef,' said Dr Davies.
For Hindu devotees, this is not an appealing suggestion.
'We want to persuade all Indians not to eat beef out of respect for the majority. I don't believe this report, it smells of American propaganda to me,' said Prakash Sharma, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).
The Indian Council of Medical Research recommends that the average person should eat 10.8kg of meat a year
The annual per capita consumption in India is: 5.5kg