McDonalds announced on Tuesday that it will be opening two vegetarian restaurants next year in India, the world’s most populous nation. Currently, no beef is served at any of the 270 McDonalds in India; the country’s Muslims also refrain from pork.
As a vegetarian for the past thirty years, I am curious at McDonald’s plans. It’s been about 35 years since I bit into a cheeseburger (the thought is enough to send my husband into serious chortles, especially after years of saying yet again to my late mother-in-law, “no Mom, Kristina doesn’t eat burgers”). What if there was a McAloo Tikki burger (with a mashed-potato patty) or Pizza McPuff (a vegetable and cheese pastry) on the menu?
McDonalds in a Country Where Cows Are Sacred
Considering that 20 to 42 percent of India’s population does not eat meat, and that 80 percent are Hindu (a religion that holds the cow as sacred), McDonalds (which accounts for 3 percent of all beef consumption in the US — 800 million pounds) may not be able to expand its market share in India terribly much. McDonalds, of course, thinks otherwise; indeed some in the Indian media responded with enthusiasm to its announcement.
The reality is that McDonalds has been trying to establish itself in India for two decades. In July, the fastfood giant’s reported profits in India fell. As Adharanand Finn (who says he has never eaten at McDonalds) writes in the Guardian, “surprise, surprise, here comes a headline-grabbing idea for boosting sales.”
The two new vegetarian restaurants will be near two Hindu holy sites, the Vaishno Devi cave shrine in Kashmir, one of its Hinduism’s four holiest sites, and the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the holiest shrine of Sikhs in the Punjab. Sikhs are not banned from eating meat but their temples only serve meatless food to pilgrims (for free).
McDonalds is presumably planning to latch onto the tourist trade by opening outlets at these holy sites. As Vikram Bakshi, who manages McDonalds restaurants in east and north India, says in the Economic Times, “We see a huge potential [for vegetarian outlets] as, by nature, Indians are religious.”
But isn’t it a bit culturally insensitive for a company that relies on slaughtered cows for much of its profit to open restaurants near such sacred sites? Controversy over religious objections to McDonalds food has been widespread: As the New York Times notes, it was just over a decade ago that reports about French fries cooked in beef fat nearly saw McDonalds having to end operations in India entirely.
Hindu activists have protested McDonalds outlets, sometimes vandalizing them. A representative of Hindu nationalist group Swadeshi Jagran Manch, a branch of the influential Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), told the Telegraph:
It’s an attempt not only to make money but also to deliberately humiliate Hindus. It is an organisation associated with cow slaughter. If we make an announcement that they’re slaughtering cows, people won’t eat there. We are definitely going to fight it.
Certainly McDonalds is bending over backwards to accommodate the different dietary habits of India’s population. McDonalds has sought to “do in Rome as the Romans do” in opening restaurants around the globe. For example, French McDonalds serve wine to their customers. Already, the Golden Arches in India uses mayonnaise made without eggs, has separate burger-cooking lines for vegetarian and meat items, has workers outfitted in green aprons in the vegetarian section and requires workers in the non-vegetarian section to shower before entering the other section, the New York Times notes.
Meatless Food Made By McDonalds Still Has That Fast Food “Taste”
But I’m of the opinion that, meatless or not, you can’t get that McDonaldness out of the Golden Arches. McDonalds built its fortunes on selling burgers, and the whiff of the grease on the grill lingers.
As an anecdotal case in point: I would never step within 100 feet of the Golden Arches except that our teenage autistic son, Charlie likes his two burgers and a small French fry. Despite my dislike (a gentle word) for the “fragrance” wafting around McDonalds outlets, I’ve been visiting them regularly since Charlie was little. He used to be on a strict gluten-free casein-free diet and a bunless burger and fries was a treat, plus he adored the (yes, germ-filled) PlayPlaces as they afforded a way for him to interact a bit with other kids on long cold winter or hot summer afternoons.
(I know, I know, we should wean him! It’s not so easy to change autistic kids’ habits; pick your battles and all that.)
Now we stick to the drive-thru lane and there have been times when, finding it late afternoon and I still haven’t eaten lunch, I’ve thought OK, maybe I’ll get something. Then the scent of the burgers and the oil from the fries and the ketchup — and a memory of a tannish McSalad — reminds me, wait till you get home.
In view of what McDonalds serves up as “salad,” I’m very wary of their corporate mass-produced spin on those McAloo Tikki burgers and Pizza McPuffs. My son is never full from eating at McDonalds, often heading straight to the fridge after those burgers.
The big news about McDonalds opening vegetarian restaurants near two of India’s sacred shrines is that, not only is it continuing its path to world dominance, it’s spreading all the other unhealthy by-products — higher cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, McWaist Lines — associated with a fast food diet around the globe while raking in more McProfits.
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Photo: Shira Golding/flickr