McDonald’s in India – Heather Timmons

McDonald'sThe announcement by McDonald’s on Tuesday that it would open a few vegetarian-only restaurants in India next year marks the fast-food chain’s latest attempt to appeal to consumers in an unlikely market.

The fast-food chain has been on a nearly two-decade slog in India, one marked by both controversy and success. On Tuesday, the company said it planned to open vegetarian outlets near the Golden Temple in Amritsar and a Hindu shrine in Jammu and Kashmir.

McDonald’s now has 270 outlets in India, less than 1 percent of the company’s more than 33,000 stores worldwide, but a much larger presence than Western food chains like KFC, which has 160 restaurants in India.

Much of the controversy has revolved around the product on which the McDonald’s brand is based: beef hamburgers. The company does not sell any beef products in India, where about 80 percent of the population is Hindu.

Vaishno DeviMcDonald’s accounts for 3 percent of all beef consumption in the United States, or some 800 million pounds a year, according to Meat Trade News Daily. (Based on average beef production per cow of 585 pounds, that’s 1.37 million cows per year killed in the name of the fast-food chain, in the United States alone.)

Just over a decade ago, McDonald’s was nearly forced to leave the country after it was reported that beef flavouring was in the fat it used to make French fries around the world. Shiv Sena and other Hindu activists protested McDonald’s outlets, in some cases ransacking them. In a letter to then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, activists demanded the chain be banned from India, saying “in a country where 80 per cent of the population worships the cow, one cannot go on with this kind of a controversy,” The Hindu newspaper reported in May of 2001.

Golden Temple, Amritsar“McDonald’s has made itself extra-sensitive in the Indian market since then, and the results are beginning to show,” The New York Times reported in 2003. “Its mayonnaise is made without eggs. All stores maintain two separate burger-cooking lines, one vegetarian and one not. Workers in the vegetarian section wear green aprons, and workers from the non-vegetarian section are forbidden to cross over without showering first.”

The Tuesday announcement inspired navel-gazing among avowed foreign vegetarians and enthusiasm from the Indian news media. But some Hindu groups took it as a call to arms.

McDonald’s, an “organization associated with cow slaughter,” is attempting to humiliate Hindus by opening the outlets in religious spots, an official from the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, a branch of the Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, told The Daily Telegraph of Britain. “We are definitely going to fight it.” – The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2012