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Why marketing to ‘pure vegetarians’ landed this Indian delivery giant in a pickle

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A popular food delivery app in India has sparked controversy, and an abrupt retreat, after launching an initiative to attract vegetarian customers.

Earlier this week, Zomato announced plans to introduce a curation of restaurants that serve only “pure vegetarian food.”

This list “will exclude all restaurants which serve any non-veg food item,” the company’s founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal said on X on Tuesday.

“Non-veg,” short for “non-vegetarian,” refers to any food that contains meat, poultry or seafood.

“India has the largest percentage of vegetarians in the world,” Goyal wrote on X, adding that many of them are “very particular” about how their food is cooked and handled.

In order to further cater to these strict dietary preferences, their food would be delivered by a “dedicated pure veg fleet.” These riders would wear new green uniforms, as opposed to the red ones worn by the rest of the delivery workers, the company said.

“This means that a non-veg meal, or even a veg meal served by a non-veg restaurant will never go inside the green delivery box meant for our pure veg fleet,” Goyal added.

Many of the most widely followed religions in the world’s most populous country require adherence to strict dietary laws.

Jains and many Hindus stick to a vegetarian diet, following the principle of “ahimsa,” or non-violence and respect for all life.

Almost four in 10 Indian adults say they are vegetarian, according to the Pew Research Center.

Some of these dietary laws are so deeply entrenched that there have even been instances of property developers not selling apartments to meat eaters.

Restrictions on cow slaughter have become politically contentious in India in recent years, as many among the country’s majority Hindu population consider the animal to be sacred.

While Goyal emphasized the new plans are not meant to “alienate any religious, or political preference,” the company has received a huge backlash on social media.

Some users criticized the move as “casteist,” as many Hindus from dominant castes tend to be vegetarian, while many people from marginalized castes are not.

India’s caste system was officially abolished in 1950, but the 2,000-year-old social hierarchy imposed on people by birth still exists in many aspects of life. The caste system categorizes Hindus at birth, defining their place in society, what jobs they can do and who they can marry.

Zomato’s move was also slammed as risky for both meat eaters and delivery staff.

“Unsafe and illogical,” wrote one user on X. “This strengthens an artificial divide between veg-non-veg eaters. Enables … colonies to identify and persecute citizens on basis of food preference.”

Following the outcry, Zomato has rolled back plans to dress riders delivering vegetarian food in green. “All our riders — both our regular fleet, and our fleet for vegetarians, will wear the colour red,” Goyal said on Wednesday.

“This will ensure that our red uniform delivery partners are not incorrectly associated with non-veg food, and blocked by [housing] societies … our riders’ physical safety is of paramount importance to us,” he said.

“We now realise that even some of our customers could get into trouble with their landlords, and that would not be a nice thing if that happened because of us,” he added.

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