The Great Lobster Controversy

2006.Jun.24 Saturday · 1 comment

in Books & Other Media, Food & Recipes, Life, Popular Posts

Buenos Aires – It’s been the talk of the food blogosphere and news writers for the last week. Whole Foods Market announced on June 16th that they were going to stop selling live lobsters (and crabs). Various emphases are mine…

“Although we discovered significant improvements are possible from capture up to in-store tank conditions, we are not yet sufficiently satisfied that the process of selling live lobsters is in line with our commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals,” said Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market. “Whether it’s you, me, a dog, a cat, sheep, cow, or lobster, it’s about giving them the ability to express their normal behavior, to really support who they are as a creature. It’s the right thing to do.”

“We place as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we do on the expectations for quality and flavor. It is an integral component of our standards for every species we sell, and lobster cannot be any different,” said John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market.

Commentators have weighed in with a wide variety of opinions:

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what that means to lobsters. This is what Whole Foods needs to know before they decide to allow the sale of live lobsters again. But while the company stresses “the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals”, the real gist of the ban is that Whole Foods wants us to lie to lobsters.

The final destination of a pot of boiling water is the same no matter whether the lobster finds itself luxuriating on The Royal Scotsman or rides the Abu Ghraib express to get there. Is it really respectful to sucker the lobster, like some Mafioso who thinks he’s about to be “made”, and then, without warning, whack the poor slob? Or is it better that the lobster be kept aware throughout the entire journey that its circumstances are dire: it is, after all, a condemned crustacean.

Short of having a priest hold the doomed lobster’s claw while it’s given its Last Rites, Whole Foods will simply be deceiving the animal in the name of compassion. But is the status quo – namely the systematic capture, imprisonment and execution of lobster – any better? I say yes. Or more to the point, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The current method of delivering live fresh crustacean is efficient, effective, and above all honest. A lobster in this crappy situation won’t be thinking there’ll be Mickey Mouse ears waiting at the end of the train ride.” Eddie Lin of Deep End Dining, published in The Guardian

“…something doesn’t sound right about this. To me, this is a decision based off of the worst of information, information that comes from us anthropomorphizing an animal.

Considering the fact that lobsters are still going to be sold in Whole Foods, most likely flash frozen along with hundreds of other packed together brethern. And considering that it will be most likely fish that takes over the space left empty by the departed tanks, fish that are killed by suffocation and in some instances gutted and bled whilst still alive, it’s hard for me to swallow this “ethical treatment of lobsters” argument.” Kate Hopkins, The Accidental Hedonist

“In 2005, the Maine Lobster Promotional Council commissioned a survey on people’s attitudes toward lobster. Only 15 percent of Americans, mostly in the Northeast, qualified as “traditionalists” who wanted their lobsters alive. An equally small number, just 13 percent, objected to the retail sale of live lobsters for reasons of cruelty. For Whole Foods, the smart business decision is to target the silent majority – the 50 percent or so of Americans who would love to buy fresh lobster if only it were easier to prepare. Trevor Corson, Boston Magazine

“What’s new is using these machines to process live lobsters. The animals are locked inside the tube, alive, and the pumps whir and the water pressure is compressed around the lobsters to three times the deepest trenches in the ocean. The lobsters die, of course — just think what the pressure on your ears is like when you dive a few feet underwater.

At the same time, all the muscle flesh inside the lobsters conveniently separates from the shell. For the first time in human history, people have finally devised way to extract the meat of a lobster without cooking it.” Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters

“Whole Foods Market shoppers don’t have to trade off quality, taste and texture or the fresh cooked lobster experience as they switch from ‘live’ to Clearwater’s “new super fresh raw frozen” lobster offerings. Clearwater’s innovative shell off raw lobster meat is being launched into the retail trade and Whole Foods Market is among the first of North American retailers to make it available to their customers. The Process to remove the shell is 100% natural and humane and it does not involve any additives or preservatives. It allows whole claws and tail to be extracted and immediately vacuum packed and flash-frozen to lock in that ‘fresh-caught’ taste and texture. The format has been available to the food service industry for over a year. Chefs love it for the labor and time savings. It has created the opportunity to serve innovative and high quality lobster preparations at both small and large catering and banquet functions without the fuss and bother of extended cooking and shucking times.” Colin MacDonalad, Clearwater Seafoods Limited Partnership

“The ways that lobsters are treated would warrant felony cruelty to animals charges if they were dogs or cats,” said Bruce Friedrich, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” Fox News

“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.” Tom Sharpe, Free New Mexican

“PETA and other animal rights groups are thrilled with the decision, but seem to have missed the fact that the market will still carry frozen raw and cooked lobster products. The lobsters are still being killed, but they won’t be boiled by Whole Foods shoppers.” Nicole Weston, SlashFood

“I don’t think that animal rights groups and PETA (who I like in principle, not in practice) “seem to have missed the fact that the market will still carry frozen raw and cooked lobster products”. I think they see this move as a step in the direction they’d like to see the world go.Suburban Misfit

“Chef Jasper White, whose four Summer Shack restaurants sell $4 million to $5 million worth of lobster each year, called the decision “pure silliness” and a “PR move” to appease animal-rights activists. Some 10,000 families in New England and maritime Canada depend on lobstering for income, he says, and Whole Foods should be more concerned about them than about an animal that he called “basically an insect.” “People first, lobsters second,” White said. “Lobsters are for dinner.” The Boston Globe

And various commenters on the above:

“Really support who they are as a creature? Knit them a sweater that says “Dinner.” Please.”

“I don’t think WF is going overboard here. It’s awfully hard to know for certain what another being feels, and it’s rather patronizing to assume that you do know.”

“They are banning the sale of LIVE lobsters, not lobsters in general. Who wants to eat a lobster that has been in a state of stress for weeks anyway? Or maybe the big name chefs in New York don’t really care what the food tastes like? P.S. Whole Foods should start investigating the lives of the animals that turn into pork. It’s enough to put an omnivore off her feed.”

“Most ‘big name NY chefs’ dont get their lobsters from Whole Foods, anyway.”

“Maybe if we had to see all animals up close before they were killed, we’d find protein alternatives quickly. Imagine corrals of cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs in stores.

Scavenging and hunting are where we got the intelligence to give a crap about it in the first place.

The back and forth is fascinating. Now, I’m a stockholder in Whole Foods Market, and I have to say I don’t applaud their decision. I’m sure it will contribute to the bottom line, and I’m sure it will make some portion of the customer base, and a large number of folk who aren’t customers but like to protest such things, happy – and John Mackey, the CEO, is known as one of the few CEOs in the business who consistently delivers on his financial and operational promises to both his stockholders and customers. But I think the stated reasons are simply disingenuous. I would doubt that it’s based on misinformation about lobster nervous systems, feeling pain, or probably even the bottom line in regard to the cost of lobster tanks, though I’ll bet that weighed in on the decision. I don’t even think it’s pandering to the animal rights activists, even if they did initiate the “investigation” via a letter writing campaign (and even if the announcement panders to them).

I think it comes down, very simply, to a narrow view of what consumers want. The quote above about how few people really want their lobsters live is probably the most telling (though note, 15% specifically stated that they want them live, 13% stated that they didn’t, that makes 72% who just didn’t express a preference). Even dropping a live lobster or crab into a pot of boiling water goes beyond what many average home cooks are comfortable doing. The idea of chopping a head off, or splitting it down the middle, while still living, is past their squeamishness threshhold. Big insect or not, many folks simply don’t want to have to kiill their own food. I don’t think it’s any different than if they were handed a baggie filled with water and a live fish, leaving them to kill and gut it, or, as one of the last commentators I quoted said, “imagine corrals of cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs”. However… Whole Foods has always been about experiencing food at its best, not at its supermarket imitation, which for lobsters, crabs, and the like, means live. For cows, sheep, chickens, and pigs, it doesn’t – they require special handling, and the meat is actually better when allowed to age, it’s not the same thing.

The whole question of feeling pain and nervous systems is moot in the end. It’s been conclusively demonstrated that plants have sensory systems. They’re structured differently than the nervous systems of members of the animal kingdom, but they have them. So where does one draw the line? Sure crustacea don’t have central nervous systems like mammals, but they have nerves. Do they feel pain? Who knows? It’s the height of arrogance to assume that only animals that are easy to anthropomorphize feel pain as we know it. Because, very simply, any discussion of pain is a human concept. We do know that other animals, and plants, react to physical stimulation. Who are we to say that their reaction is not some form of pain. At the very least, they obviously have a negative, “uncomfortable” reaction. This, of course, leads into a whole discussion of spirit/soul versus brain, i.e., are the only real things those which can be scientifically demonstrated? Or maybe whether non-human beings have spirits/souls, yet another well-charged discussion. “Feel the force Luke”…

At the same time, unless we want to sit around and eat rocks, it’s part of the food chain game. Or, to quote someone I once read in regard to vegan dining (and I apologize for not remembering where I read it): “A cow can run. A carrot can’t.”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

dan July 11, 2006 at 12:23

Not that I’m a big Anthony Bourdain fan, but I couldn’t resist this comment on the subject:

The fucktards at Whole Food, however, have done us a real service by providing the most ludicrous example of “animal welfare” concerns with their public hand wringing over the fate of shellfish. Comedy Gold. Extraordinary that in a time when we’re force feeding PEOPLE at Gitmo–and when hundreds of thousands of PEOPLE are starving to death in the Sudan and elsewhere, that there is no more burning issue on the minds of educated, well-fed, financially comfortable citizens than whether or not a clam feels pain–or whether a duck can handle what any respectable adult film ingenue considers routine.

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