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August 1, 2006

Whole Foods and Lobsters:
Humane Treatment or the Bottom Line?

by Muriel L. Hendrix

Recently, Whole Foods Market announced that it would discontinue live lobster tanks in its retail stores and in the future, would carry frozen lobster products processed solely by Clearwater Seafoods of Canada, unless other processing companies and their suppliers changed to handling techniques used by Clearwater.

The large chain's decision -- there are 180 Whole Foods Stores across the country -- triggered a lot of speculation about hidden agendas and economic benefits to the company. Were these decisions actually driven more by national trends in seafood marketing rather than, as they claim, by a desire to treat animals humanely?

Bob Bayer, director of Maine's Lobster Institute, says he isn't sure what is going on, but that one thing is certain: "They've gotten a lot of free publicity out of it," he says. "I can't tell you how much time it has taken for me to deal with the national media about this."

In its press release, Whole Foods said both decisions were based on its commitment "to humane treatment and quality of life for animals." Spokesperson Margaret Wittenberg said the company felt that with live tanks, it was "too difficult to maintain consistent conditions...to ensure the health and well-being of lobsters outside their natural environment."

Regarding frozen raw and cooked lobsters, Whole Foods said the company decided to buy processed product from companies "that meet the strict handling and processing standards" developed during an evaluation period with Clearwater. Presently, Clearwater is the only company that meets Whole Foods' new criteria to "ensure the quality and health of the animal."

These handling and storage standards, which Clearwater has been using to maintain a year-round supply of hard shell lobster for international markets, include single layer holding crates on their boats (deep water vessels that fish in the offshore region near Nova Scotia) and individual holding compartments during storage. Hard shell lobsters can be held for months by Clearwater in these compartments, where conditions simulate winter temperatures and cause the lobsters to remain dormant. The system, which is advantageous because it ensures a steady supply and minimum loss during shipping or before processing, is described in an article, "Out in the Sort," by John McPhee in the April 18, 2005 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

Discontinuing live lobster tanks is nothing new. Howard Johnson, the seafood marketing analyst who for 14 years has compiled the "Annual Report on the Seafood Industry" and tracks trends in global and U.S. seafood markets, talked about this trend three years ago at the Maine Fishermen's Forum. He said that across the U.S., supermarkets, cruise ships, casinos and the like were discontinuing live lobster tanks and turning instead to easier-to-handle frozen whole lobster and lobster tails and meat.

The entire country, Johnson noted, has been moving towards processed, packaged, easy-to-use foods, and he cited as a prime example all the pre-washed packages of different lettuce and greens so popular in supermarkets. He also said many supermarkets across the country were abandoning fresh fish counters and relying solely on frozen product or fresh fish marketed in high-tech vacuum packaging that extends shelf life.

More Landings, Better Freezing

Increased lobster landings have made possible more and more frozen product, and liquid nitrogen freezing at 150 degrees below zero has dramatically improved the quality of frozen lobster products. At the Boston Seafood Show in 2000, tasters couldn't tell the difference between Cozy Harbor Seafood's frozen and fresh cooked lobster.

Kristen Millar, director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, says her extensive research on lobster marketing supports Johnson's forecast. John Norton, owner of the Cozy Harbor Seafood processing plant in Portland, adds that 14 years ago, "zero percent of Maine lobster was processed," but that "from 2002 to 2006, closer to 40 to 50 percent of the Maine catch has been processed." He thinks this figure will continue to rise. Norton declined to reveal if and how much he had been selling to Whole Foods, but did say they were buying a lot of Maine product before hooking up with Clearwater.

In addition to the economic benefits of discontinuing live tanks, Norton believes Whole Foods could be reacting to another national trend: pressure from animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which caused the flap a few years ago over the pain felt by live lobsters when dropped into boiling water. Even so, Clearwater's web site says that "a lobster's nervous system is lower on the evolutionary scale that that of fish," and refers to research at the University of Maine dismissing speculation that lobsters feel pain. Whole Foods carries a wide range of other seafood and meats, but no one is talking about the pain they feel when they are put on the block, or, for that matter, how Clearwater cooks its lobster.

A separate trend, that buying from one large supplier is more economical than dealing with multiple small firms, could have motivated Whole Foods to partner solely with Clearwater. Michael Pollan explored this trend in a June 4 New York Times Magazine article, "Mass Natural," which explains how Wal-Mart's new line of organic groceries can be harmful for small organic farms. "Big supermarkets want to do business only with big farmers growing lots of the same thing," Pollan observed, "not because big monoculture farms are any more efficient (they aren't) but because it's easier to buy all your carrots from a single megafarm than to contract with hundreds of smaller growers. The `transaction costs' are lower, even when the price and the quality are the same."

McPhee writes that when he visited Clearwater's Dryland Pound in Arichat, Nova Scotia, lobsters were arriving "at the rate of a hundred thousand a day." Clearwater obtains this stream of lobsters from its offshore lobster boats and dealers all over Nova Scotia (and even Maine, says Millar, although by Federal law, Maine lobsters sent to Canada and then returned to the U.S. in any form lose their U.S. citizenship and are marketed as Canadian). The Clearwater fleet, like Maine offshore fishermen, uses mile-long trap lines. Their fishery is the only quota-based fishery on the northeast coast of North America. According to McPhee, Clearwater's catch ranges from three- to 15-pound lobsters, with an occasional 20-pounder. Trevor Corsen, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, says these include broodstock that Maine fishermen protect by size limits and notching tails of egg-bearing females so they will not be taken.

It is generally agreed that Clearwater's method of placing lobsters in single layers in special crates for the trip back to shore and putting them in special apartments in the Dryland Pound are important technological innovations. However, it seems clear that these practices are motivated less by concern over humane treatment and more by a desire to maximize the company's return on its investments.

Maine's lobster processing industry has been shoved aside in this deal, but one can question if a consumer would rather eat lobsters that have been caught by individual Maine fishermen and processed within hours of being caught, as at John Norton's Cozy Harbor facility, or Jeff Holden's Portland Shellfish plant, or one that has been snoozing in Clearwater's apartment complex for an indeterminate time.

Millar says the Lobster Promotion Council has written to Whole Foods, inviting them to visit Maine and learn more about how lobsters are caught and processed here. "We feel they don't have the whole story about the difference between Maine's industry and Canada's industry," she says, "that they don't really have all the facts about our care and concern and commitment to maintaining a sustainable fishery. We want them to see for themselves what harvesters and dealers do to take care of future generations."

She also expressed concern about a burgeoning trend in the marketplace that Whole Foods and Wal-Mart support, Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) of seafood. "The Maine industry is just beginning the process of evaluating MSC to decide if we're going to move forward to having our lobster fishery certified," Millar said. (Certification is a costly process overseen by an organization in England).

Whole Foods recently bought out The Whole Grocer, a locally owned natural foods store in Portland, which had been fighting for survival after the chain Wild Oats Natural Marketplace opened a huge store on the lot next to it on Marginal Way.

click to enlarge
Christopher Ayres

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