Upscale Grocery Chain Passes on Live Lobsters

Whole Foods has decided to stop selling live lobsters and crabs, and instead sell only frozen ones. Michele Norris talks with Margaret Wittenberg, the chain's vice president of quality standards. She also speaks with Bob Vosburgh, Whole Health Editor at Supermarket News. And we hear from lobstermen in Portland, Me.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The choice is not yours anymore when it comes to buying lobsters at Whole Foods Market. The high-end supermarket chain has decided to pull all live lobsters and crabs from its tanks. They'll still sell frozen ones from a company called Clearwater. This follows an eight-month study to see what life was like for the clawed crustaceans from catch to consumption and Whole Foods Vice President of Quality Standards, Margaret Wittenberg, says it wasn't pretty.

Ms. MARGARET WITTENBERG (Vice President of Quality Standards, Whole Foods Market): We looked at every step, from the boat, the capture, the harvest and through the different types of storage and transportation, including tanks in the store.

NORRIS: And where was the real problem?

Ms. WITTENBERG: Well, it still ended up being a problem for us. It's just too difficult to maintain the consistent conditions for the time that they're outside of their natural environment.

NORRIS: Now, you're going to sell frozen lobster. At some point you still have to kill the animal, so what's the difference there?

Ms. WITTENBERG: Yes, yes. That is certainly something that we looked at as well and at Clearwater they have worked on developing a process that is a high-pressure chamber that kills the lobster within just a matter of a couple seconds.

NORRIS: And that's more humane?

Ms. WITTENBERG: Yes. A more quicker and humane process than the comparison of being in boiling water.

NORRIS: What are you going to do if the consumers miss the lobsters? If they actually revolt in some way and say, hey, we prefer the live lobsters? The frozen stuff's just not the same. We want our live lobsters back and if we can't find them there, we'll shop someplace else.

Ms. WITTENBERG: Well, you know, we'll certainly encourage them to try the produce and, you know, everybody has to make their own decision but it's not all about sales.

NORRIS: Margaret Wittenberg wouldn't tell us how many live lobsters they sell at Whole Foods. For an industry-wide view, we spoke with Bob Vosburgh. He's an editor at Supermarket News. He says, don't expect the other supermarkets to follow suit because they can't afford to alienate even one customer.

Mr. BOB VOSBURGH (Supermarket News): Whole Foods, on the other hand, is not really worried about that. In fact, they are trying to differentiate themselves even more from the conventional supermarkets. So Whole Foods is going to take these positions and going to continue to stand for something in the mind of the consumer, whereas the conventional supermarkets may be portrayed by Whole Foods as, you know, just pandering to the crowd.

NORRIS: How big a sector of their market was this? Is this sort of a case where they can make a big announcement about this, a big splash, but lobsters in the end account for only a very small percentage of the items that they sell at Whole Foods?

Mr. VOSBURGH: I don't think it's important to them, in the sense that this is just another step in their philosophy.

NORRIS: So, it's about market positioning?

Mr. VOSBURGH: Yeah, in a sense it is. And it's just, you know, this is their business philosophy. We stand for this and sorry, folks, if you want lobster, you're going to have to go down the street.

(Soundbite of fishing boat)

NORRIS: For a final perspective on this, we go to Widgery Wharf in Portland, Maine. There, lobsterman Jim Holden is skeptical about the Whole Foods decision, to say the least.

Mr. JIM HOLDEN (Lobsterman): They've got a brain the size of a head of pin. I mean, we're going to cook and eat them anyway. How do you know the chicken isn't feeling anything when you slaughter it? This is out of control. Anybody with a cause today, they're against anything. I think they'd have us all eating radishes and pretty soon those radishes would have feelings. That's what I think.

NORRIS: When pressed on the concerns of Whole Foods about the quality of life for lobsters who have to make their way to a supermarket tank, Holden had this to say.

Mr. HOLDEN: If they're worried about that, they should see my traps when I haul them. The big females that carry the eggs, they devour everything in the trap. They make mincemeat out of it. Do I think it's inhumane for a lobster to be in a tank, crowded? They're much better off there than they are in these, believe me. Is that inhumane? That's life, that's nature.

NORRIS: Lobsterman Jim Holden of Portland, Maine, talking about the decision by Whole Foods Market to stop selling live lobsters and crabs in their stores. And, for the record, a 45,000 square foot Whole Foods is going up just a half a mile from the wharf in Portland.

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