Topic: Society

Whole Foods Market
(July 2006)

Even for hardy, sea-food loving, Cape Cod-obsessed New Englanders, there has always been a bit of squeamishness and remorse accompanying the gruesome act of plunging a live lobster into a pot of boiling water. Not enough to stop us from doing it, you understand…the food chain and all that…but it was always the one unpleasant hurdle to be vaulted between the acts of buying the nasty green crustaceans at the market and soaking the succulent meat from their bright red carcasses into melted butter prior to eating it. “Oh, they don’t feel any pain,” my mother would say, as she laughed diabolically at the lobsters’ furious thrashing just before she slammed the pot cover over their death throes. Boy…they sure looked like they felt pain. In a food delivery system that insulates modern diners from the ancient discomfort of watching their meals die, lobsters remind us that animals indeed suffer for our dining pleasure.

Thus The Ethics Scoreboard (oh, all right, my mother didn’t really laugh diabolically, but she did sometimes make little high pitched “Help! Help!” sounds as the lobsters were boiling) salutes Whole Foods Market, a supermarket in Framingham, Mass., for declaring that it will no longer sell live lobsters to heartless seafood lovers.  Whole Foods says its decision to stop selling live lobsters and soft-shelled crabs was prompted by a European Food Safety Authority Animal Health and Welfare panel report that concluded that lobsters and crabs have some degree of awareness, feel pain, and can learn. Sort of like Anna Nicole Smith.

This is far from the majority view, according to Bob Bayer, who heads the Lobster Institute (yes, there really is such a thing.) Bayer, a University of Maine professor, explains that lobsters have a nervous system similar to an insect, and have no brain. No brain, no pain. “No brain means a lack of a processing system,” he says. “There are a lot of studies that back us up.” That’s comforting, although there has historically been a powerful bias infecting such studies. Only recently have scientists started to recognize the uncomfortable fact that non-primates reason, play, grieve and have emotions, after decades of adamantly denying what dog and cat owner have known for centuries. Fortunately for us carnivores, the animal ethics field has been dominated by fanatics like the folks in PETA, whose excessive rhetoric makes it easier to push the whole unsettling topic out of our consciousness…and consciences.

Whole Foods’ decision won’t save many lobsters (the store still will sell lobster meat and frozen cooked lobsters, which presumably met their fates the same way the live lobsters Whole Foods won’t be selling would have), and it would seem to be inconsistent with some of the store’s fare like veal, pork and chicken, none of which reach our dining rooms without enduring considerable amounts of pain and suffering. And it may well be that the ethical treatment of the animals on our menus is an ideal that will be permanently trumped by tradition, economics, nutrition and biology. Still, there is a real ethical issue raised by the thrashing in those boiling pots of water, and we lobster-lovers, in our hearts, always knew it was there. This corporate Ethics Hero had the courage to face it and take action.

And make us think.

I don’t know about you, but this whole subject has given me a craving for a lobster…


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