Mainers dismiss Whole Foods' lobster ban

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While some Mainers are protesting a decision by Whole Foods Market to no longer sell live lobsters in its stores nationwide, others say it’s just a recognition that people from away really don’t want to look their dinner in the eye before they eat it.

Whole Foods Market, based in Austin, Texas, cited humane treatment of the creatures as the reason they no longer would stock live lobsters in tanks at any of their 180 stores. The grocery chain will continue to sell frozen lobster, as well as other seafood and meat.

“I think the decision is idiotic,” said Rep. Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, who has a lot of lobstermen in her district. Pingree said the Whole Foods decision alone won’t have a big impact on the Maine industry, but worries other stores could follow their lead.

“It could set a dangerous precedent for a major grocery store chain to do this, especially one moving to Maine,” said Pingree, noting that Whole Foods plans to open a store in Portland. She would like the Baldacci administration to sit down and talk to the store’s owners, because, she said, “their decision isn’t really based on any fact.”

The store created a task last November to study the treatment of lobsters in tanks and concluded: “It is too difficult to maintain consistent conditions throughout the entire supply chain to ensure the health and well being of lobsters outside their natural environment for such a long period of time. Many lobsters are held in storage facilities for several months.”

Whole Foods, according to an announcement it released last week, experimented with individual holding compartments during storage and “condos” for in-store tanks to respect the nature of the “solitary creatures.” Those apparently didn’t work.

The store also cited a study that showed “decapod crustaceans, including lobsters and crabs, are complex in behavior and appear to have some degree of awareness, feeling pain and having the ability to learn.”

Pingree called the whole discussion “bizarre” saying the lobster has a tiny brain as compared to other things we eat, like cows, pigs and chickens.

Maine lands 85 percent of the popular American or so-called Maine lobster caught in the U.S. or about 65 to 70 million pounds a year, according to industry experts. Canada is the lead harvester worldwide.

Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said her members are “understandably offended” by the Whole Foods decision because it implies that lobstermen don’t take care of their catch, and they do.

“We do a great job in Maine. We protect small lobsters…we protect females,” she said, yet it sounds like the store is now saying, “We don’t want your product.”

But the real message, she believes, is they don’t want the lobsters live, but are happy to have them cooked or frozen – a market segment she believes is only growing.

“Americans don’t kill their food,” McCarron said, and aside from the people who grew up with live lobsters on the coast, “They don’t want to kill it, and they don’t want to take it out of the shells.”

Kristen Millar, director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, wasn’t so quick to dismiss those who like to cook live lobsters, saying, “They live everywhere in the country.”

Her research did show, however, some regional differences.

The group she has dubbed the “middle America lobster lover,” for example, is more squeamish and prefers the lobster mixed with something like linguini, rather than staring up from the plate with its shell on. “It’s someone who likes lobster in a more convenient format,” she said.

As for the Whole Foods decision, Millar said, “We respect their decision to do whatever they feel is appropriate for their market…and are happy that they continue to offer frozen lobster products.”

“We don’t really understand the logic of the decision given that it’s a plentiful and sustainable resource,” she added, but, “I have no fear at all that this is a harbinger of things to come for whole retail food industry.”

Millar said the lobster catch has increased two-and-a-half time in the last 15 years and “We sell every lobster we catch.”

“People love lobster. They’re crazy about it,” she said.

Whole Foods is also removing live crabs from their grocery stores.

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