Indians are consuming more meat than ever before despite a strong culture of vegetarianism and a religious taboo about consuming beef as diets change and hygiene improves in the processing industry.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says Indians’ per capita consumption of meat is running at 5.0 to 5.5kg a year, the highest since it began compiling records, reflecting a wider taste for protein-rich diets in developing countries.

Experts say strong economic growth, which has led to increasingly affluent, better-travelled consumers, is partly the reason for the rise, leading to new opportunities for supermarkets and restaurants to cater to more varied palates.

“Indians are losing their inhibitions and getting adventurous,” said Jaydeep Mukherjee, executive chef at Indigo Delicatessen, one of Mumbai’s most popular foreign cuisine restaurants.

“Beef (buffalo) and pork steaks are regular favourites,” said Jaydeep.

The fine-dining restaurant, which prides itself on its Reuben sandwich with pastrami, is now scouting for suppliers to source pheasant, quail and duck meat for its restaurants at the Phoenix Mills shopping mall and in south Mumbai.

“Meat consumption, which was once dependent on parental sanction, is going up rapidly with more liberal attitudes and greater Western influences,” added Mohit Khattar, managing director of gourmet food chain Nature’s Basket.

For Khattar, eating non-vegetarian food is no longer a luxury while the standard of domestic meat production has become more hygienic, improving consumer confidence.

Non-vegetarian items accounted for a sixth of Nature’s Basket’s total sales of nearly $13.3 million in the last financial year – marking 64 per cent growth year-on-year.

At the supermarket, part of the Godrej conglomerate, imported pork products such as smoked ham, bacon and prosciutto, as well as chorizo and fuet, are best-sellers, said Mohit.

India produces 10.6 million tonnes of meat and fish a year, according to the FAO but the country still remains a stronghold of vegetarianism.

There are no official government figures on the number of vegetarians but in 2006, the newspaper, The Hindu, conducted a nationwide survey which concluded that up to 40 per cent of the country consume dairy products and eggs but no meat – the highest number in the world.

Meat-eating, particularly beef, is still unacceptable for most of the Hindu population, who consider the cow a sacred animal and their slaughter for consumption is banned in most Indian states under a law with tough sanctions.

Fast-food retailer McDonald’s does not sell beef burgers in India and some co-operative housing societies ban meat-eaters from buying or renting property.

India’s second-largest religious group, the sizeable Muslim community, shuns pork products. Seafood and chicken, though, remain popular among all religious groups.

India’s per capita consumption of broiler chicken has doubled to 2.26kg per year in 2010 from 1.08kg a decade ago, according to the US-based Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

The increasing availability of meat is a boon for people such as Ajoy Mukhopadhayay, a 39-year-old Hindu who likes beef curry when dining out.

“Unlike the kebab, there’s more body in beef. I enjoy my beef bhuna (a spicy curried roast beef), it’s fibrous and juicy,” said the animator for a software firm from the eastern city of Kolkata.

“(Eating beef) was a different experience in younger days. It was never listed on most menus but we knew where to find it.”

India’s per capita meat consumption rates, however, are well below the average in Asia – 27kg – and the rest of the world, which eats 38kg, according to FAO figures from 2007, the most recent figures available.

“Per-capita meat consumption continues to rise in India and other countries,” said FAO Asia-Pacific spokesman Diderik De Vleeschauwer.

“While not quantified as yet, (the) FAO is confident that meat consumption has increased and is still further increasing,” said Diderik.

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