A few days ago, Kolkata resident Debalina Chowdhury received a startling message on Whatsapp. It contained the names of several city restaurants that were allegedly serving up rotten meat to its customers. So far, there’s no evidence that any of the establishments on that list was actually guilty of using decaying ingredients, but it was enough for Chowdhury.

“I haven’t visited the restaurants in the list of late, but I might later,” said Chowdhury, an advertising professional. “I have limited myself to eating chicken at home which is brought fresh from the market. I am not consuming minced meat or sausages anywhere.”

Messages of the sort that Chowdhury received have been flying around the city for the past week or so, shortly after the police detained three men for transporting animal carcasses obtained from a garbage dump, allegedly so that the meat could be sold to city eateries. As the scandal unfolded, 11 people were arrested, including the alleged kingpin of the operation. But Kolkata’s appetite for kebabs, rolls and biryani has been dulled.

“The restaurant business is based on trust,” said popular Kolkata food blogger Indrajit Lahiri. “That trust has been broken. It will take some time to be re-established.”

Social media has played its role in making residents suspicious of the meat they’re eating. Facebook users have been sharing photos and videos of rotten meat, claiming that the images were shot in specific city restaurants. Some Facebook users are blaming the Mamata Banerjee government of having encouraged the rotten meat trade in order to contaminate Hindu blood.

The effects of the scandal are visible on the Calcutta Foodies Club Facebook page, a group of over 132,000 food lovers who usually post pictures of their favourite delicacies and eateries. But this past fortnight, posts on the group have been greeted with flippant comments wondering if the meat in the images has come from a “bhagad” or dumping ground.

Scepticism about what exactly restaurants are cooking up was also evident on the plate of Sunil, a regular patron of the Park Street dive bar Oly Pub. Though beef steak is his favourite disk, he had decided to stick to egg biryani for dinner. “I don’t know what they are serving me, right?” Sunil said. “It could be meat from cats or dogs. Now, I don’t mind eating cat or dog at the price of cat or dog, but it should not be served to me at the price of beef or mutton.”

Kusum Rolls at Park Street. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.

The beginning

The stench of the rotten meat scandal began to spread shortly after April 20, when three men were arrested in Budge Budge, about 28 kilometres outside Kolkata, suspected of transporting carcasses from dump yards. Six days later, when the police raided an ice factory in Kolkata’s Rajabazar area, they found over 18,000 kilograms of rotten meat, packaged and ready to be sold. It wasn’t clear from what kind of animals the meat had been obtained.

The people conducting the operation would reportedly mix rotten meat with fresh meat and package it in bags bearing the labels of well-known companies, the police said. The packets were sold at markets in Kolkata and beyond, in states such as Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar, the police said.

A Special Investigation Team constituted by the Trinamool Congress government raided eateries and meat markets across the city, leading to more harrowing discoveries. On April 27, a wholesale chicken outlet in Kolkata’s Newtown area was found to have five freezers full of rotten meat, in addition to housing sick birds. Soon after, the owners of some restaurants admitted to buying chicken from the offending seller, who is now on the run. On May 3, a team led by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation seized and destroyed 100 kilograms of rotten meat in Kolkata’s New Market area.

The investigation led to the arrest on Thursday of Biswanath alias Bishu, the alleged kingpin of the racket. The police allege that rogue staff members of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation would tip off the meat racketeers the moment they spotted an animal carcass being dropped off at a dumping ground. Among the 11 people arrested for their suspected involvement in the case is an ex-councillor belong to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The police believe that most of the rotten meat made its way into the cold cuts market. “It is easy to use the carcass meat where the form changes,” a trader told The Times of India. “For example, shops selling kebabs and tikkia [patties] have to use minced meat. Similarly, at salami and sausage-making units, contaminated meat can easily be processed, packaged and sold.”

The case has already become a political controversy. On May 3, members of Opposition parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, were on the streets on to demand that the Trinamool Congress government take strict action against the racketters. The controversy has reached the Kolkata High Court as well. An environmental activist and lawyer, Subhash Dutta, filed a Public Interest Litigation demanding judicial intervention into the matter. “West Bengal is a paradise of adulteration and hell as far as checks of food safety is concerned,” Dutta told NDTV. “Prevention is better than cure. This is a preventive petition.”

Changing tastes

The furore has, unsurprisingly, hurt the restaurant business in Kolkata. Meat-eating customers are shifting to fish dishes. The sales of vegetarian dishes have risen. Last weekend, a substantial slump in meat sales was reported in Kolkata’s markets and restaurants. While the restaurant managers and meat vendors of Kolkata who spoke to Scroll.in could not ascertain an exact figure for their loss, they unanimously agreed that the market for meat has taken a hit.

“May be not 50% but I would say 30%,” Atikram Gupta, Assistant Secretary General of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India, said about the loss of profits Kolkata’s restaurants had to incur. To tackle the problem, the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Eastern India has asked all its member hotels and restaurants to procure meat and poultry from only reputed vendors who have Food Safety and Standards Authority of India licences and Corporation Trade licences.

But some restaurateurs smell a conspiracy. Only Mughlai restaurants are being targeted on WhatsApp, claimed A Rahman, manager of the main branch of Shiraz Golden Restaurant at Park Street. Even so, he didn’t believe there was much truth to the claims. “If we used bad meat, we would be caught by our customers immediately,” Rahman said.

Asif Iqbal, manager at the Only Alibaba outlet in New Market, believe that the kerfuffle would be sorted after the state panchayat elections on May 14. So far, the campaign has been rather chaotic. “The media and everyone else needed some issue to divert attention from the poll violence,” Iqbal said. “So, they found one. That meat of bad quality was being used in cold storage is old news. But why is this news just right now? How quickly the investigation happened and everything became so huge.”

A mutton trader at the Sir Stuart Hogg Market. Image credit: Devarsi Ghosh.