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Demise of grocery-store lobsters renews animal welfare debate

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Unceremoniously, Whole Foods Markets, the largest natural-foods chain in the world, pulled its lobsters from their tanks last week and boiled them all. For the influential grocer, it was the final lobsterbake.

After an eight-month inquiry, Whole Foods decided that keeping live lobsters in tanks for long periods does not jibe with its stated values promoting the proper care and welfare of food animals.

Ethicists and marketers see the decision as a bold move – one sure to spark more discussion among grocers about the merits and demerits of the lobster tank, which has been the target of a Lobster Liberation campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Safeway, with some 1,700 stores in the US and Canada, last month became the first grocer to drain its tanks and stop selling live lobsters.

To be sure, elimination of the costly tanks – which take up space, require salt water, and need a pumping system to circulate the water – can help the bottom line, marketing experts say. But critics say Whole Foods, which prides itself on providing a shopping "experience" that brings shoppers closer to food producers, has in fact taken a step in the opposite direction with its lobster policy. It's one more sign, they say, that squeamish Americans don't want to think about animals that are the source of their food.

"This is the end of an era, because the lobster is pretty much the last significant animal that [individuals] still have to kill [themselves] before [they] eat it," says Trevor Corson, author of "The Secret Life of Lobsters."

Live lobsters in tanks have long been a draw for stores – part entertainment, part epicurean adventure.

But PETA and others have objected to tank conditions. Wholesalers sometimes keep lobsters in tanks for months before shipping them to grocers and restaurants, in an effort to draw higher prices for the heavy-clawed crustaceans. Grocers have been known to raise water temperatures, so that lobsters will become more active – and more interesting to watch.

In select stores, including several here in Atlanta, Whole Foods experimented with "lobster condos" – stacked pieces of PVC pipe for privacy – in tanks to improve living conditions.

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