Whole Foods Makes Exception to No-Lobster Rule in Maine

When Maine's first Whole Foods Market (WFMI) opens next week, it'll have something no other Whole Foods store has: live lobsters.

The Austin, Texas-based natural foods grocery chain announced last June it would stop selling live lobsters and crabs in the name of crustacean compassion. But it's making an exception in Maine, a state synonymous with lobster.

Whole Foods decided to sell lobsters at its Portland store after finding a company that met its demands for how the lobsters should be treated.

The lobsters will be kept in private compartments instead of being piled on top of each other in a tank, and employees will use a device that zaps them with a 110-volt shock to spare them the agony of being boiled alive in a pot of water.

Whole Foods' standards for lobsters are similar to those it uses in buying its meat, poultry and other animal products, said David Lannon, regional president for the North Atlantic region.

"We're taking up animal compassion in all species," Lannon said.

Maine's lobster fishermen are skeptical.

They were offended by Whole Foods Market Inc.'s decision to banish live lobsters from its stores. Now they're offended by its selection of a New Hampshire lobster supplier.

"When they say they buy local and support local fishermen and farmers, and then they tell us we're doing everything wrong, obviously it doesn't sit very well with us," said Tom Martin, a Portland lobsterman.

Whole Foods has contracted with Little Bay Lobster Co. of Newington, N.H., to supply lobsters for its 46,000 square-foot store in Portland, which opens on Feb. 14. Little Bay contracts with lobstermen from Vinalhaven, an island off midcoast Maine, who use its sea-to-store handling process that gives lobsters the royal treatment.

After the lobsters are caught in traps, they'll be placed in crates in individual holding compartments that are designed to reduce stress and handling from the boat to the store.

Store employees will use a countertop machine called a "CrustaStun," which uses an electrical charge to dispatch the lobsters in a matter of seconds rather than minutes it can take in hot water.

Whole Foods doesn't plan to sell live lobsters at any of its other 191 stores, Lannon said, because they aren't close enough to the lobster grounds to meet the company's standards.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Virginia-based animal rights group, would rather Whole Foods not sell live lobsters, but it said the company should also be commended for ensuring that the animals are being treated humanely.

"Our expectation is that all Maine stores that sell live lobsters will have to implement animal welfare protocols in order compete with Whole Foods, which would be a good thing," Matt Prescott said from PETA's offices in Norfolk, Va.

Kristen Millar, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, said she's pleased Whole Foods is selling live Maine-caught lobsters at its Portland store. But she's insulted it's using a New Hampshire company as its live lobster supplier when it could use any of several lobster dealers in Portland just blocks away from its store.

The Maine lobster industry should be lauded, not punished, for its tradition of conservation and stewardship, Millar said.

"I think it's unfair to suggest that the 7,000 lobstermen and hundreds of lobster dealers and retailers don't know how to handle a Maine lobster," she said.

Using an electronic zapper to kill the lobster sounds like a gimmick, said Martin, the Portland lobsterman.

"A lobster electric chair?" Martin said. "I wonder how that will sound for their public relations, that they're going to give the lobster the electric chair."