I've got three early recollections of heading out into the wide world of retail with my parents: the smell of fresh-cut wood at the lumber and hardware store, the push-button bell that brought the butcher from behind his chopping block and out into the store to answer questions (or shake his head at some meddling kid), and the big tanks of live lobsters at the Navy commissary where we did our grocery shopping. Even today, those tanks filled with languid lobsters and their rubber-banded claws still manage to capture the attention of tons of kids both young and old and spice up an otherwise tedious shopping experience at grocery stores everywhere.
Unless you patronize Whole Foods Market, that is. On June 16, the Austin, Texas–based grocer announced that it would immediately discontinue the sale of live lobsters and soft shell crabs. Concerned with the quality of life of said crustaceans, Whole Foods spent seven months conducting a full-scale, pot-to-pot supply chain study and ultimately was not satisfied that the decapods were consistently afforded humane treatment between the time they were snatched from the sea to the moment they were dropped alive into a pot of boiling water.
The announcement was lauded by animal rights activists, including Bruce Friedrich, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who told Liz Austin of the Associated Press in her June 15 article “Whole Foods Bans the Sale of Live Lobsters” that “The ways that lobsters are treated would warrant felony cruelty to animals charges if they were dogs or cats.” Some scientists interviewed by Austin, however, remained skeptical that lobsters—which frequently shed claws—can feel anything akin to pain. Despite the hung jury, Whole Foods moved ahead with the seafood suspension, noting in a press release that if at some time the company can ensure humane treatment throughout the supply chain, it will consider resuming the sale of live lobsters.
The situation harkens back to 2004, when—even with inconclusive scientific findings—the treated-wood industry voluntary phased out lumber treated with chromium copper arsenate (CCA) for residential applications as activists pressed a case that CCA was a virulent carcinogen and particularly dangerous to children frequenting playgrounds and picnic tables constructed from CCA-treated lumber. That proactive decision and the solidarity and responsiveness from mills to treaters to dealers to contractors that followed certainly paid off. According to a study released in March by the Louisiana State University Forest Products Development Center, the industry saw sales of treated lumber hit a record $4.9 billion in 2004 even while the switch was on.
“Although some took it on the chin more than others, all the parties really collaborated to get new products into the market and accepted,” says Wade Camp, director of economic services of the Kennar, La.–based Southern Forest Products Association, an industry group that helped fund the Louisiana State study. “Sometimes the anticipation of the surgery is worse than the surgery itself,” Camp says of the hardships the industry expected during the first days of the phase-out. “But the changes came through OK, the consuming public doesn't know the difference, and the perceived risk associated with the [CCA] product has been removed.”
It will be interesting to see if the fisheries, food distributors, grocers, and activists dealing with the lobster issue will be able to match the triumph that residential construction achieved while replacing CCA-treated wood. A proactive response and full supply chain awareness are a good start and might even lead to the type of product differentiation (think alkaline copper quat, copper azole, and sodium borates) that can drive free enterprise market competition and increased margins and sales. Whole Foods, for one, is already promoting the sale of its frozen raw and cooked lobster provided by vendor partner Clearwater Seafoods, proving that even in the direst of product line recalls, there is always more than one way to cook a lobster.