A hunger for humane foods

Ethical worries affect retailers


News from the front in the food wars: Live lobsters are a dead issue at Whole Foods. Chicago and California have made foie gras non grata. And hundreds of restaurants are boycotting Canadian seafood to protest that country's annual baby seal hunt.

As consumers ask more questions about what they eat - where it comes from, how it lived, how it was killed - they are discovering that many meals come with ethical quandaries. Retailers and restaurants are responding, hoping that a concern for animal welfare also benefits the bottom line.

Last week, Whole Foods announced it was stopping the sale of live lobsters and live soft-shell crabs in its 184 stores nationwide because the upscale grocer could not guarantee the crustaceans are treated humanely on their journey from ship to supermarket aisle. But critics wonder whether the decision was as much about economics as morality.

"They have a particular market and group of customers they're interested in paying attention to, and this is likely to be a concern on the part of their customers," said Karen Brown, senior vice president for the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based group that represents food retailers and wholesalers. "But the facts would not bear out that it's an inhumane process."

At the Whole Foods in Baltimore's Inner Harbor yesterday, several shoppers applauded the decision while others wondered about the store's motive.

"If they are doing it for ethical and moral principles, then it is an admirable decision," said Christina O'Hearne, 39, a nursing student and regular Whole Foods shopper. "To me, it always felt cruel to see lobsters in the tank."

Said Kevin Kacin, 38, who works in finance in Baltimore: "It sounds like a ploy to generate the liberal consumer's favor. It's kind of silly. Either way, they are dying an unnatural death."

Some restaurateurs are finding it's good business to pay attention to animal welfare issues. Two Annapolis restaurants - Riordan's Saloon and Buddy's Crabs and Ribs - have joined a boycott of Canadian seafood.

The Humane Society of the United States, which organized the seals campaign, said Canadian snow crab exports are down $160 million this year, partly due to the boycott. More than 1,000 restaurants and distributors have signed on to the campaign.

"We obviously have a conscience as to what we serve and how it's served," said Mike Riordan, whose restaurant has operated on the Annapolis waterfront since 1977 and has not served Canadian seafood since April. "It's not a liberal or conservative issue. It's a human issue."

Riordan said he has heard only positive comments from customers about his decision.

"Whole Foods' strong stance on animal welfare is a winning formula in the marketplace," said Matt Prescott, manager of factory farming campaigns for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Whole Foods is living proof that ethics can coexist with profits."

Not all consumers care so fervently about how animals are treated, of course. But enough of them do that they constitute a sizable market, said Paul B. Thompson, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University who specializes in food, agricultural and community ethics.

"Many people who were not particularly aware of where their food came from have perhaps over the last five years become much more interested in that," he said. "In some respects, it starts with Darwin and people recognizing there's probably more continuity between the way animals experience the world and the way humans experience the world than they might have been inclined to think."

But they were not feeling the lobster's pain yesterday at Faidley Seafood in Baltimore's Lexington Market. Whole Foods' decision was met with incredulity and a few choice words.

"Listen," said Lou Fleming, a longtime oyster shucker at Faidley's, "we're not talking about something with a soul." He shook his head when given the lobster news. "Human beings put too much thought into things that don't make sense."

He doesn't care at all about the lobster?

"I care about how much butter to put on it," Fleming said.

Interrupted during a crab cake lunch, Northwest flight attendant Liz Delaney said everything has become politically correct.

"It's ridiculous. Why don't we cut out fishing altogether? Do you think it's nice to hook fish?" Delaney said. "This lobster thing has gone overboard."

It's not just lobsters, though. The City Council of Chicago has approved a ban, to take effect in August, on restaurants' serving foie gras. California already has such a ban because of the conditions under which the delicacy is produced: Ducks are force-fed corn, through a tube stuffed down their necks, until their livers are six times normal size.

In announcing its decision last week, Whole Foods cited a report issued in November by the European Food Safety Authority that said decapod crustaceans, including lobsters and crabs, appear to have some degree of awareness, can feel pain and can learn.

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