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Animal Defenders of Westchester
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In Test Program, Whole Foods Becomes a Lobster's New Best Friend

Published in the NEW YORK TIMES, 6/10/06: 


ATLANTA, June 9 — Just like "The Jeffersons," the live lobsters at a Whole Foods Market here are movin' on up.

These, perhaps the classiest of crustaceans, are part of that grocery chain's test program, which seeks to make the lobsters' trip from sea to sale more humane. Thus, the ones that wind up at the Whole Foods location in the well-to-do Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta get their own separate "lobster condo," a cooler, more hospitable water temperature and a dimly lit tank away from glass-tapping  children.

"We wanted to treat them less like merchandise or a curiosity to be shown to a kid," said Amy Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. "It's not like buying a dozen eggs."

These measures are in place until at least June 15, when managers at the company's head office in Austin, Tex., have said they will decide whether such changes go far enough to ensure that lobsters are being treated compassionately before they are sold. If the managers decide the lobsters are not treated well enough, Whole Foods has said it will stop selling live lobsters altogether.

A month ago, at the height of the season, the chain pulled live  soft-shell crabs from all its stores amid concerns for their quality of life; and Kate Lowery, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the store would soon review the treatment of live mollusks like clams and oysters.

The store has not addressed the question of whether it is humane to cook crustaceans while they are still alive.

As might be expected, animal rights groups say it is about time someone paid attention to the plight of live shellfish, which are routinely starved before purchase and kept in what activists say are unnatural conditions that are stressful and cruel.

Representatives of the shellfish industry, meanwhile, say they suspect that Whole Foods' threat to stop selling live seafood because of ethical concerns is just an excuse for poor sales.

"Isn't this ridiculous?" asked Robert K. Pidgeon, director of purchasing for Inland Seafood, an Atlanta-based distributor of live crabs and lobsters to restaurants across the Southeast.

Lobsters, Mr. Pidgeon pointed out, have the nervous systems of insects and have dim eyesight that prevents them from seeing much of their surroundings. They also stop eating naturally for months in the wild when water temperatures drop, he said.

"The overwhelming majority of people I've spoken to think Whole Foods is just doing this because they can't sell them," Mr. Pidgeon said. "It's not something that sells well in most grocery stores. It's too easy to lose too much money too quickly."

Mr. Pidgeon said most people prefer to order lobsters and crabs in restaurants rather than cook them at home, and as a result, live seafood that sits in grocery stores is often discarded.

That is why the Safeway chain just announced that it would stop selling live lobsters, said Brian G. Dowling, Safeway's vice president of public affairs.

"It's just not a big seller for us," Mr. Dowling said.

Publix Super Markets, a grocery chain based in Florida that carries live lobsters in about half its stores, said it had no plans to stop selling lobsters or change the way they were treated.

"If it wasn't selling well, we'd take them out of our stores," said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix.

Taking live sea creatures out of stores is exactly what animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States wish grocers would do. Both groups had representatives on the panel that reviewed Whole Foods' compassion standards for live seafood.

"Among foods that are borderline sadistic, live seafood is at the top  of the list," said Bruce G. Friedrich, vice president of international grass-roots campaigns at PETA, referring to stores' treatment of live food products.

PETA maintains that lobster tanks are inhumane because the lobsters are starved and often piled on top of one other, when in their natural environments they are solitary animals. The group also says that shellfish, despite primitive nervous systems, can feel pain.

Robert S. Steneck, a biologist who studies lobster behavior at the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole, said he thought the discussion over the inner lives of shellfish, or lack thereof, was really more about a person's comfort level than the  lobster's.

Lobsters and crabs, like most other invertebrates, Dr. Steneck said, can move away from harmful stimuli, but there is no evidence to suggest that they are capable of suffering, which requires an  emotional component.

"I don't mean to be too flip here," Dr. Steneck said, "but when you're talking about the whole range of nature, it's not always pretty and it's not always the way you'd want your golden retriever cared for."

But to Leigh-Anne Dennison, 36, of Washington, who once stopped shopping at a grocery store because she was so appalled by the way it treated live lobsters, her discomfort is reason enough to push for  change.

"I've seen them put into a pot on a cooking show or get stuck near an air pipe in a tank, and it looks like they feel pain to me," Ms. Dennison said. "They're just trying to live their own lives, just like we are."

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