Any of the well-heeled customers strolling into the Whole Foods supermarket in central Washington yesterday morning with their heart set on a celebratory 4 July lobster feast would have left disappointed.
At their store on the corner of P and 14th streets, as indeed at their stores throughout the region and its 180 locations across the nation, Whole Foods no longer sell live lobsters. "I'm sorry, sir. Whole Foods is currently investigating the way lobsters are treated," apologised the friendly man in a white apron standing behind the glistening fish counter.
Whole Foods' recently announced decision has not simply been a spanner in the works for wealthy Americans wishing to celebrate Independence Day with a Lobster Americaine or by throwing one of the meaty crustaceans onto the barbecue. Their action as the US's leading organic chain store, and the owner of the smaller but equally upmarket chain Fresh and Wild in London, has reignited the controversy over whether or not people should be eating this jewel of the ocean. Thermidor, or not to Thermidor? That is the question.
"This is about quality of life," Margaret Wittenberg, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods told reporters. "Whether it's you, me, a dog, cat, sheep, cow or lobster, it's about giving them the ability to express their normal behaviour, to really support who they are as a creature. It's the right thing to do."
The company's decision was the result of an eight-month inquiry which concluded that it was unable to ensure the health and well-being of lobsters and soft-shelled crabs outside their natural environment for what can be a long period. Many lobsters are kept in storage facilities for several months before being bought by a customer, said the company. For a firm that prides itself on promoting ethical production methods - as well as having a very canny approach to obtaining good publicity - it was presumably a straight-forward decision. From now on, it will only sell frozen lobster meat.
Yet while the announcement has gathered considerable attention because of the position of Texas-based Whole Foods, which last year's sales totalled $4.7bn (£2.5bn) and is considered by many to be an innovator within the industry, the campaign to save the lobster has long been building. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has been running a "lobster liberation" for some time and had been lobbying Whole Foods on the issue.
"We thank Whole Foods for making this decision. We have been working with the company regarding the welfare of all the animals they sell in their stores," said Matt Prescott, a spokesman for Peta. "Scientists say that there is no dispute that [lobsters] have brains and nerve endings and feel pain like other animals. [They should not be] stewing in their own excrement before being boiled alive."
The controversy about keeping lobsters idling for months in tanks in supermarkets or restaurants goes claw in claw with the debate about the appropriate way to kill the creature should you decide to eat one.
While some argue that the only humane way to kill a lobster is to cleave its head with a large sharp knife, cookbooks and culinary texts have traditionally suggested plunging the animal into a pan of rapidly boiling water. Some have instead suggested bringing the pan of water to the boil with the lobster in it, so that it gets knocked out slowly but does not - so the theory goes - feel any pain.
This is all fine in theory. But as anyone who has ever tried to cook a lobster by plunging it into boiling water knows, the lobster rarely co-operates. Rather than sitting and dying quietly, the lobster will thrash about and hook its claws over the side of the pan in an effort to escape.
And that sound the lobster makes - is that hissing simply the noise made by trapped air or do lobsters really cry? The American novelist David Foster Wallace recently wrote a piece for Gourmet magazine, based on his visit to last year's Maine Lobster Festival, a week-long fair that takes place in the very heart of lobster-eating and catching country and is dedicated to all things crustacean.
Having watched the events, he concluded of the lobsters' behaviour when plunged into a boiling pan: "The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. If you permit yourself to think that lobsters can suffer and would rather not, the Maine Lobster Festival can begin to take on aspects of something like a Roman circus or medieval torture-fest."
But not everyone agrees. A study published last year by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo suggested that while people might be tempted to give lobsters the benefit of the doubt, it was not clear that they could feel pain.
Diane Cowan, a Maine-based marine biologist and founder of the Lobster Conservancy, a group dedicated to the preservation of the stocks and the lobster fishing industry in Maine, said that the creatures had a very primitive nervous system and would not feel pain as we know it. She pointed out that a lobster can lose a claw that is stuck in a rock and simply move on as if nothing had happened.
She recently told the Associated Press: "They certainly have a nervous system and respond to external stimuli, but whether you can call it pain, I don't know. If [lobsters are] in water that's below 40 degrees, they're pretty much just inactive."
But other campaigners insist that science is on their side. The Scottish-based group Advocates for Animals (AFA) last year issued a report that collated much of the available science and concluded that lobsters, crabs and cephalopods - namely octopus, squid and cuttlefish - do experience pain.
It concluded: "The treatment of lobsters is of particular concern as they are typically cooked alive in boiling water. The animals struggle violently during this process. Crabs and lobsters can also suffer during transportation and storage in overcrowded conditions, with lobsters often having their claws bound together with plastic bands. Many lobsters get open wounds and injuries between capture at sea and arrival at the processing plant."
The group has been lobbying both the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at Westminster and the Scottish Executive's Environment and Rural Affairs Department to include these animals in their animal welfare bills. Defra's bill is still going through the House of Lords and the AFA has argued that a recent report issued by a panel by the European Food Safety Authority supports their claims.
That report says: "The scientific evidence clearly indicates that [decapod crustaceans] are able to experience pain and distress."
AFA's director, Ross Minett, said last night: "We believe there is sufficient evidence. Can they suffer, can they experience pain? There is little doubt at all."
Such a view is also supported by the British lawyer and inventor Simon Buckhaven, from Bedfordshire, who is marketing his self-designed method of killing lobsters. He said the so-called Crustastun, which comes in two sizes designed for either restaurants or fish processors, stunned the lobsters using an electrical current, which then kills them.
He said: "People are becoming more aware. We were showing the design in Geneva, a city in a land-locked country, and people were coming up to us and saying, 'Thank-you'. They did not like they idea of boiling lobsters but they said, 'We love eating them otherwise.'"
The economic background against which this ethical and scientific debate is taking place is huge. According to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine, 183 million lbs of lobster are caught annually in the US and Canada, of which 25 per cent are sold live.
Maine is the centre of the industry and there the lobster population appears to be thriving, unlike further south, which has been devastated by a combination of disease and the possible effects of global warming and warmer ocean temperatures. In 2004 in Maine alone, fishermen landed 63 million pounds of lobster, a catch worth around $253m. The vast majority are caught in traps and that year there were an estimated 3.2 million traps being used in the waters off Maine.
"The past 10 years have been banner years in Maine, with more lobsters landed than ever," the fishing boat captain and author Linda Greenlaw, told the New York Times. Ms Greenlaw, whose character is featured in the novel and movie The Perfect Storm, added: "Nobody can believe it."
But further south, especially in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the lobster fishermen and women are having a tougher time. Around the Long Island Sound, warmer waters and disease - and perhaps the over-fishing of immature lobsters - have rocked the industry. New York state's department of environmental conservation estimated the current lobster population in those waters was 85 per cent fewer than in the 1990s.
What impact the announcement by Whole Foods will have on the industry is unclear. But other supermarkets also appear to believe that the days are numbered for live lobster tanks. The Safeway supermarket chain in the US also recently said that it had stopped selling live lobsters because of declining sales.
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