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June 28-July 4, 2006

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The Whole story?

By Stett Holbrook

WHOLE FOODS may have eased its corporate conscience by banning the sale of live lobster, but it hasn't made things easier for ambivalent carnivores like me.

Whole Foods made the announcement earlier this month. After conducting an audit of how lobsters go from ocean to market, the company concluded they would no longer sell the shellfish.

"Although we discovered significant improvements are possible from capture up to in-store tank conditions, we are not yet sufficiently satisfied that the process of selling live lobsters is in line with our commitment to humane treatment and quality of life for animals," said Margaret Wittenberg, vice president of quality standards for Whole Foods Market, in a statement. "At this time, we believe it is too difficult to maintain consistent conditions throughout the entire supply chain to ensure the health and well-being of lobsters outside their natural environment for such a long period of time. Many lobsters are held in storage facilities for several months."

For now, Whole Foods will only sell frozen raw and cooked lobster from suppliers that meet the company's standards for humane treatment, handling and processing. If the lobster business changes for the better, the company may carry live lobsters again.

"We place as much emphasis on the importance of humane treatment and quality of life for all animals as we do on the expectations for quality and flavor. It is an integral component of our standards for every species we sell, and lobster cannot be any different," said John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. Mackey, by the way, is a vegan.

There are critics who say Whole Foods' decision pandered to animal rights activists and is nothing but wishy-washy political correctness, or worse, a publicity stunt disguised as an effort to do away with a poorly performing part of their business.

But in a world where the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms, industrial slaughterhouses and gill nets is the norm, I think a lot of the criticism is off-base. Assuming Whole Foods' motives are ethical and not economically based, I think the store should be applauded for trying to do the right thing and ease the suffering of the creatures it sells. The company is currently developing species-specific "animal compassion standards" which require environments and conditions that support the animal's physical, emotional and behavioral needs. Producers who meet these voluntary standards will be able to label their products with the special phrase "animal compassionate."

But compassion only goes so far. Isn't raising and catching animals in order to kill and eat them inherently inhumane? Or at least less than humane? If we really wanted to be humane, we wouldn't eat meat at all. It would so much easier to be a vegan or a remorseless flesh eater. That way things are black and white. You either eat meat or you don't. Ambivalent carnivores have it harder.

I go through a rather tortured decision-making process about what meat I eat. What kind of diet did the animal have? How was it cared for? Is it pumped full of antibiotics and hormones? How was it slaughtered? I seek out grass-fed beef, but I shy away from veal. I love a juicy grilled hamburger with a fat slice of a tomato, but if I stop to think about it for a few seconds, slaughtering an animal to satisfy my cravings doesn't make me feel quite as good.

It's my unscientific, Buddhist-inspired view that all creatures suffer and feel pain, and humans are most humane when they try to end or at least ease the pain and suffering of other creatures. But I still eat meat. Am I a hypocrite? I feel better knowing the creatures I'm eating lived a life relatively free of suffering and were slaughtered as quickly and humanely as possible. But is there such a thing as humane slaughter? Just putting the words "humane" and "slaughter" next to each other feels a bit odd.

For me, eating meat means accepting the fact that the animal I'm eating suffered some pain even if the package carried an "animal compassionate" or "humanely raised" sticker. The question for ambivalent carnivores like me is how much suffering are we willing to accept while still being able to enjoy dinner?

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