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Opinion

Should Hindus have their own religious nutritional standard?

Post a commentBy RJ Whitehead , 06-Aug-2014
Last updated on 06-Aug-2014 at 20:58 GMT

If Muslims can have halal-certified food, and Jews can look for the kosher “K” mark, why shouldn’t Hindus have their own system of certification?

This interesting question was raised by Ranjan Zed, president of the US-based Universal Society of Hinduism (USOH), following a row last week that sparked outrage among Hindus towards Heinz Australia’s fruit juices.

As FoodNavigator-Asia reported on Friday , Heinz admitted to using alcohol and beef-derived gelatine during the production of its Golden Circle and Original Juice Co. juices.

Heinz said it used alcohol-based flavours in its juices while also employing gelatine as a clarifying agent, although it set out to reassure Hindu consumers that these products were filtered out of the final product to remove any traces.

Zed, however, was not reassured, and suggested that the company was failing in its responsibility to consider the sensitivities of Hindu consumers.

In Hinduism, only foods that are shuddh—or pure—are permitted, and anything containing meat, fish, eggs, alcohol or intoxicants are prohibited for strict observants. Machinery and equipment used to process shuddh food should also be properly cleaned and purified before its processing.

Strict Hindus believe the consumption of pure foods can lead to mental purity and liberation, while improper foods are spiritually harmful. This is why food theology categorises foods after gunas—or the operating principles of universal nature.

However, Zed has argued that there is no current way to protect Hindu consumers from unwittingly eating prohibited ingredients, though he believes this could change if an international body were formed to offer shuddh certification.

Much as halal-certified foods display one of the various halal marks on their packaging, and kosher products are given their own logos, the labels on foods that are permissible to Hindus should feature a capital “S” with a circle around it, Zed suggested. He even offered to lead the charge in this direction.

A worldwide Hindu body could be created to certify products, manufacturers and restaurants as shuddh,” he said. “Until such a body was formed, food producers could contact Hindu scholars for help. USOH would offer its services in the formation of such body and helping the producers.

Full marks to Zed for positive thinking, but my initial reaction on hearing his clarion call was to scoff at the idea. Here is a man, I thought, who has religious vision and clearly a good idea, but having followed the vexed subject of halal certification as I have over the years and seen what a mess that is in, I was stumped as to why anyone would bother. It was little more than vegetarian pie in the sky.

Then I spoke to Dr Guldeep Aurora, president of the Australia Indian Society of Victoria. He seemed quite bemused as to why anyone would consider implementing such a scheme.

Hindus are very diverse, so the religious aspect of a diet depends on one ethnic indian to another within the Hindu community. Some couldn’t care less [about shuddh practices], whereas others might be very particular,” Aurora told me.

I suppose there are some fanatical people out there, but to give [shuddh food] its own certification is not practical. One has to be very pragmatic about these things.”

On the whole, he said, Australian Hindus have adapted to local food traditions and way of life. 

We have food labelling laws that tell the consumer what’s in a product, so any more than that could be seen as nitpicking.”

To my mind, at this point, the answer seemed cut and dry: that shuddh standards would be difficult to implement, and there was no real appetite for such a system.

Still intrigued, I did what any sane person would do: I Googled shuddh certification and was surprised to find that there already exists a national standard, which was devised more than a decade and a half ago, and by all accounts it’s thriving.

As one might expect, with the vast majority of the world’s Hindus being of Indian and Nepali heritage, such certification might come from the subcontinent. But it doesn’t. Instead, step forward the South African Hindu Maha Sabha.

SAHMS’ Shuddha (sic) Certification was easy to implement and benefits not just Hindus but the wider food industry, Ashwin Trikamjee, its president, told me from Durban.

It was a very simple process. We got a logo, registered it with Trade and Industry Department, then we went public and publicised it. As we represent Indians in South Africa, we knew what their requirements were for shuddha certification.

On an ongoing basis, we have complaints about foods that are labelled as vegetarian or which refer to generic terms like colouring, which still might contain animal fats. When this happens, we will approach the manufacturer or distributor, who will usually take action, happily.

We have had very positive feed back. It means that manufacturers are able to enjoy the confidence of Hindu consumers.”

Fair enough, I learnt something. And having listened Trikamjee talking about the initiative, I was soon convinced that it could be a good thing, if done right.

The issue boils down to one thing: that shuddh is a tradition more than it is religious law, so it is up to the individual to decide on the level of his or her adherence. By comparison, halal is a requirement for all Muslims. Hindus can either subscribe to shuddh certification or follow their own path. Muslims, by convention, do not have that convenience.

This probably makes it easier to devise a Hindu classification system, whereas the Muslim equivalent has largely gone nowhere over the years with the exception of Malaysia, where the local standard is the norm for a number of countries elsewhere.

Zed’s offer to initiate the process of shuddh certification might on the surface look like a helpful move, but it suggests his naivety on the subject. But if he could work together with an experienced certification authority, like SAHMS—Trikamjee said the association would be happy to offer advice—there are certainly possibilities.

However, there is one thing to bear in mind: soundbites are one thing, actions are what matters. By my limited knowledge of Zed, he is someone who thrives on sending his message across the world, though I have little familiarity with what he’s achieved, if anything other than publicity.

My opinion might have changed, and global shuddh certification might be a good thing. But that’s only if it’s implemented across countries, and I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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