Demise of grocery-store lobsters renews animal welfare debate

Unceremoniously, Whole Foods Markets, the largest natural-foods chain in the world, pulled its lobsters from their tanks last week and boiled them all. For the influential grocer, it was the final lobsterbake.

After an eight-month inquiry, Whole Foods decided that keeping live lobsters in tanks for long periods does not jibe with its stated values promoting the proper care and welfare of food animals.

Ethicists and marketers see the decision as a bold move – one sure to spark more discussion among grocers about the merits and demerits of the lobster tank, which has been the target of a Lobster Liberation campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Safeway, with some 1,700 stores in the US and Canada, last month became the first grocer to drain its tanks and stop selling live lobsters.

To be sure, elimination of the costly tanks – which take up space, require salt water, and need a pumping system to circulate the water – can help the bottom line, marketing experts say. But critics say Whole Foods, which prides itself on providing a shopping "experience" that brings shoppers closer to food producers, has in fact taken a step in the opposite direction with its lobster policy. It's one more sign, they say, that squeamish Americans don't want to think about animals that are the source of their food.

"This is the end of an era, because the lobster is pretty much the last significant animal that [individuals] still have to kill [themselves] before [they] eat it," says Trevor Corson, author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters."

Live lobsters in tanks have long been a draw for stores – part entertainment, part epicurean adventure.

But PETA and others have objected to tank conditions. Wholesalers sometimes keep lobsters in tanks for months before shipping them to grocers and restaurants, in an effort to draw higher prices for the heavy-clawed crustaceans. Grocers have been known to raise water temperatures, so that lobsters will become more active – and more interesting to watch.

In select stores, including several here in Atlanta, Whole Foods experimented with "lobster condos" – stacked pieces of PVC pipe for privacy – in tanks to improve living conditions.

"Over the years, we've had people say, 'You know, you shouldn't have lobsters,' and others say, 'Wow, I love those lobsters, they're so fun to look at,' " says Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of quality control at Whole Foods. "In the end, the chink in the armor was the length of time it was out of its natural environment."

Many in the scientific community say tank living is not torturous for lobsters. One of the simplest beasts in the kingdom, the lobster quickly becomes socialized to crowded conditions, and is accustomed to fluctuating water temperatures, which occur in the wild. Their main sense, smell, soon dulls in holding tanks.

"I have a serious problem with anyone who's ever had a hamburger complaining about lobsters," Mr. Corson says. "The scientists who study lobsters all take them home and eat them."

What's more, Corson says, Whole Foods is failing to capitalize on one of its missions: connecting consumers to producers. Several Maine lobstermen are now printing their websites on lobsters' claw bands, so that buyers can go online and read a bio of the fisherman who caught their dinner. Such an opportunity for fisherman-consumer bonding is now lost by a chain that purports to value that connection, says Corson. "Whatever moral benefit we get from not having to deal with lobsters in our kitchens, we lose a larger awareness of where our food comes from," he says.

Lobsterman John Bear of Orr's Island, Maine, says the real issue is how people react to the lobster they are about to consume. Actress Mary Tyler Moore, on behalf of PETA, crashed a lobsterbake in Maine several years ago "and was run out of town," Mr. Bear says. But her point may resonate with many Americans.

What's more, most Maine lobsters already are sent to Canadian processors, where high-tech, high-pressure steamers cook and flash-freeze the meat. Such "fresh-frozen" product will now be available at Whole Foods.

"You may soon have to come to Maine for a live lobster," says Bear.

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