Four days after the deadly avian flu virus was detected in parts of West Bengal, and criticism of the state government's slack response to the crisis, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has admitted the situation is indeed grave.
However, the spread of the virus is also raising a common fear- whether non-vegetarian food was unsafe in India.
CNN-IBN show, Face the Nation dared to ask a question over the outbreak of bird flu: Is it always safer to be vegetarian in India?
On the panel to discuss the celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor, former member Animal Welfare Board of India, Dr S Chinny Krishna and nutritionist Dr Shikha Sharma.
Outbreaks like bird flu come and go
The first question was directed to Sanjeev Kapoor who was a non-vegetarian, as to whether bird flu gave him fear at all that he might need to worry about the meat that he ate?
Kapoor said that though fear was accompanied with anything that we ate, Indians were lucky to have a strong immune system.
“These kind of fears will come and go. It is like highs and lows in our lives. We learn to live with the problems.”
His point was that if birds were being culled then it that didn’t mean we were to stop eating meat or if there was a problem with vegetarian food then we stop eating vegetarian food as well.
He suggested that there was a better and wiser way of dealing with the problem.
As a former member of the Animal Welfare Board of India and one who worked for the Blue Cross of India now, looking after the welfare of animals, did Dr S Chinny Krishna believe Kapoor suggesting that the outbreak of bird flu was nothing to worry about?
Dr Krishna said that though Indians might have a good immune system but any non-vegetarian food was unhealthy for the human body.
So why did Dr Shikha Sharma change into a vegetarian from a non-vegetarian?
Dr Sharma said that the main reason for her changing into a vegetarian was because she was not eating enough vegetables.
In her opinion, non-vegetarian food could get very addictive. “When you get on to it, you do not want to eat anything.”
Did that mean that vegetarian food was not addictive?
She said that it was not addictive as non-vegetarian food was.
Dr Sharma’s phase of conversion began when she read a book and realised that she had to change her eating habits only discovering that vegetarian food was much more healthier than non- vegetarian food hence she witched to vegetarianism.
“Friends asked me that I was never a hardcore vegetarian and it was alright to take a bite, but I only realised that by stopping to eat non-vegetarian food one can actually become an animal lover,” said Dr Sharma.
Referring to Kapoor’s point that the outbreak of bird flu was just a passing phase, Dr Sharma said that poultry now was cultured in a very unhygienic way. “You are not sure about the quality of meat that you are eating,” cautioned Dr Sharma.
So was Kapoor suspicious when picking up the ingredients to cook non-vegetarian dish?
Kapoor explained that a non-vegetarian food also comprised cereal, bread and vegetables.
“I am a non-vegetarian but that doesn’t meant that I exclude vegetables from my diet. I believe people who are non-vegetarians in India are those who eat a lot of things including vegetables,” said Kapoor.
And ultimately answering the question whether he was meticulous about choosing the ingredients for a non-vegetarian dish, Kapoor said, “I would choose the best ingredients and certainly of the best quality. However, the suspension would always be there whether it was a vegetarian dish or a non-vegetarian dish.”
Non-vegetarian more tasty and addictive?
Was it fair to suggest that the taste was somehow lacking in vegetarian food?
“The taste of vegetarian food is wonderful. It is like smoking. People who smoke say that non-smokers would never understand how lovely it is to smoke. But people who don’t smoke feel the freshness inside,” said Dr Sharma.
Dr Krishna on the other hand said that the range of taste that one could get from vegetarian food was “amazing.”
Though talking in terms of hygiene, he cited an example of how he had made a film on Madras slaughter house in 19624 called One Man’s Meat and it was then he realised that the kind of meat that was being sold in the market were diseased animal parts and the meat that was not even washed.
“If you talk about safety in vegetarian food, there is absolute safety in eating vegetarian food,” said Dr Krishna.
On the flipside, there were reports from the outskirts of Pune that the water that was used in growing the vegetables were poisoned, was it simply fair to point a finger only on meat and meat products?
Dr Krishna said that vegetables grown in contaminated water was risky to eat but the degree of safety between any average vegetable and non-vegetarian food was far apart.
What about he amount of pesticides that was used in growing vegetables?
To defend his point Dr Krishna referred to the point about bird flu that triggered the debate. “Any intensive kind of poultry farming leads to outbreaks of bird flu. The animals are pumped with heady antibiotics and hormones,” said Dr Krishna.
So was the cause of the outbreaks like bird flu due to the kind of chemicals that were used in faming them and that humans were looking at turning vegetarian, as animal food was more poisonous?
Kapoor suggested that considering the kind of animal farming that was done it was always good to go the organic way.
“Non-vegetarian food is always overcooked as it takes a long time to cook, thus in the process, it can become safer,” said Kapoor.
So were vegetarians missing out on taste then?
According to Kapoor, it was entirely dependent on the preference of the individual whether to be a vegetarian or non-vegetarian,
“It is for people to perceive the taste of the different types of food,” concluded Kapoor.
Final SMS poll results: Is it always safer to be vegetarian in India?
Yes- 75 per cent
No- 25 per cent