July 06, 2006

Whole Stupid

by psu

For tonight, a rumination on some old news. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Whole Foods announced that it would no longer carry any live lobster and crabs at its fish counters. The reason given for this new policy was that Whole Foods had painstakingly studied every aspect of the live shellfish supply chain, and they decided that it was inhumane.

This is exactly the sort of pudding-brained ethics that makes me glad that there is a Trader Joe's coming to town. At least when they open, I'll be able to find high quality food items without this sort of patronizing bullshit.

There are reasons you might not want to carry live shellfish far away from their natural homes. Maybe such shipping is expensive and therefore you lose too much margin to make it profitable. Maybe sending the stuff half way across the continent puts too much stress on the supply. Maybe they they don't sell enough of the fish outside the local markets to make the enterprise worthwhile. I could understand all of these reasons. But, the supply chain is inhumane?

Let's consider the supply chain for beef. Beef shows up at the store dead. That seems worse. The lobster are also better treated than the poor eel in Japan, where a traditional preparation is to take a live eel and nail it to the cutting board through its skull so that it stays still while you skin it.

Also consider that Whole Foods has no trouble foisting these horrific fake meat products like Tempeh and "I Can't Believe That's not a Thanksgiving Turkey" on an unsuspecting public. That's cruelty on the highest order not only to the poor soy proteins, but also to the poor saps who buy the stuff.

Whole Foods plays a tricky game. They sell more than the product. They also sell the idea that you are a better person for buying the product in their store. But Whole Foods has a large national food distribution network and as such it has many of the same problems as any store that uses a large national food distribution network. The only difference is that part of their sales pitch is that they do not have these problems, and that's not really true.

I think a more truthful picture is that Whole Foods is a high margin retail outlet that brings stuff in from wherever they can get it to your home so you don't have to live in California to get that stuff year 'round. There is nothing wrong with this, but it's a bit disingenuous to do this while preaching the gospel of local food products.

As for me, I'm just sad that I'm losing the last place in Pittsburgh that will sell me an actual live soft-shell crab. I always felt a bit guilty for eating Blue Crabs way out here, far away from where they are fished. But they are tasty enough that once or twice a year didn't seem like much of a sin. Maybe I'll call up our old fish guy Tom Robinson in North Carolina and see if he'd ship me a few on ice.

Posted by psu at July 6, 2006 08:44 PM | Bookmark This

Saying it's "inhumane" will probably garner them more sales from pudding-brained lobster-anthropomorphising morons, than they'd get from realist bastards like ourselves by stating that live lobsters loose money.

Posted by Mark Denovich at July 6, 2006 10:14 PM

I could care less about lobster, but WFM was the only company who signed a major wind power contract during the 10 months that Congress allowed the 1.8 cent/kwh renewable subsidy to lapse, and for that they have by business for a long time.

Posted by Andy B at July 7, 2006 12:53 AM

I remember asking for chilean sea bass at the fish counter in Whole Foods and getting, instead, a big lecture about how I shouldn't eat that. As if I haven't heard. So I bought it at Wholey's. I actually don't see why this sort of sanctimony wins sales. If I wanted to feel like a better person I certainly wouldn't get my validation from a bunch of sanctimonious pricks. cf fair trade coffee!

Posted by daw at July 7, 2006 08:13 AM

A friend once told me the story about how they asked for baby formula at Whole Foods and was lectured about how they really should be breastfeeding instead. I mean, there's really no amount of profanity adequate enough to address that attitude.

Posted by peterb at July 7, 2006 08:32 AM

But did you hear about Whole Foods's new local food initiatives? Sounds like a good thing. http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/6/29/143121/559

Posted by Julie at July 7, 2006 09:24 AM

I don't know why you don't buy soft shell crabs at Wholey's in the strip. Wholey's have had crabs for the past month. Soft shell crabs are a seasonal item, so you can't get good crabs all the time.

I would think Benkovitz also carries soft shell crabs, if you like the more preppy environment there.

That said, I think the Whole Foods ban is also stupid.

Posted by gap at July 7, 2006 09:53 AM

Benkovitz and Wholey's both (I think) only get crabs that have been pre-cleaned and are therefore shipped dead. My experience is that these are distinctly inferior compared to crabs that are still alive when you buy them.

Posted by psu at July 7, 2006 10:12 AM

Karen says Wholey sometimes has live crabs but it's hit and miss. We haven't used them for a long time because we've gotten product of questionable freshness in the past. Maybe we'll look again.

Posted by psu at July 7, 2006 10:16 AM

In the Tea Leaves world, when a merchant stands up for healthy kids and sustainable fishing, and instructs their employees to try to educate customers about those issues if asked -- the employee deserves profanity to "address their attitude"?

Please don't ever hire anyone. And if you guys ever run for office, please remind me to vote for the other candidate.

Posted by Andy B at July 7, 2006 11:04 AM

A merchant deserves profanity if he attempts to "educate" customers (or, rather, impose their own specific political agenda) instead of doing what being a merchant is all about: selling goods.

Posted by assen at July 7, 2006 11:50 AM

It's hugely inappropriate for a grocery store employee to lecture a customer on breastfeeding-vs-formula. In addition to the sheer rudeness of it, how on earth does the employee possibly have enough information to be providing informed childcare / medical advice here?

Sure, breastfeeding is almost always better for the child, but *almost* is a key word -- there are exceptions, and people who for whatever reason cannot breastfeed really do not need busybodies, no matter how good their intentions may be, lecturing them about how they feed their children.

Also, have you heard some of the rants people get about breastfeeding? What you're characterizing as "stand[ing] up for healthy kids" often actually gets delivered as a sanctimonious "You know, you might as well be blowing smoke into the baby's face if you're going to abuse it by using formula, you terrible terrible parent".

Posted by Nat at July 7, 2006 11:58 AM

I don't know, guys. By avoiding Whole Foods Market on these grounds, it seems like you're wasting a golden opportunity for entertainment. For example:

You: Hi, I'd like a two pounds of Chilean sea bass.

WFM: I'm sorry, sir, we don't carry Chilean sea bass because it's overfished, and natural stocks are dangerously low. Are you sure you don't want something else?

You: No, I want only Chilean sea bass. What you probably don't know, friend, is that the Chilean-sea turret worm, a magnificent species of sea worm that is millions of years old and whose secretions have recently been shown to be the mother ocean's primary means of holding deadly algal blooms in check, is on the verge of extinction because of predation by its only known enemy, the toothfish -- commonly known as Chilean sea bass. Friend, don't you see? If we don't *reduce* the Chilean sea bass population, we could very well lose the turret worms altogether!

WFM: (stunned silence)

Posted by Tom Moertel at July 7, 2006 12:56 PM

I have known many women who, for one reason or another, either could not breastfeed at all, or needed to supplement their breast milk with formula.

Andy B is right that an employee with the temerity to lecture one of these women on "breast milk good, formula bad" (which was what the employee in question actually said) does not deserve profanity. What they actually deserve is to have a sippy cup shoved up their ass.

Posted by peterb at July 7, 2006 01:56 PM

I "like" how Whole Foods feels that it needs to wax sanctimonious on the "humane" treatment of foodstuffs while at the same time denying its employees the right to unionize.

Posted by Dr. Click at July 7, 2006 02:49 PM

Now I'm confused. With rants like these, why does *anyone* bother to shop at Whole Foods?

Posted by Dr. Click at July 7, 2006 02:53 PM

You've been away from Pittsburgh too long. Whole Foods can get almost infinitely bad and *still* be better than Giant Eagle.

Posted by Nat at July 7, 2006 03:40 PM

To the breast-fed zealots:
I was allergic to breast milk when I was a baby, but thankfully at that time stores weren't quite as full of self-righteous pricks like you to lecture my mother about why she shouldn't buy me formula. Moreover, I encountered none of the "problems" non-breastfed babies are supposed to have (yes, all my vitriol occurred in adulthood :). So, here's a big F you to that.

Secondly, while I agree that there are plenty of worse places than Whole Foods, and I could care less about buying live bugs, the lecture aspect of the place can certainly be irritating if you let it get to you. The marketing tricks disguised as "helpful information" are ridiculous. Whole Foods doesn't really care about us all the way some people seem to believe it does. It's a corporation, folks! This ain't Ma and Paw on the farm telling you the plain truth. Do you think the WF execs actually can't sleep at night thinking about the treatment of their bugs? As psu suggested, it's probably expensive to ship them and they don't sell well. The annoying part is that WF can frame it in a mushy way that is supposed to make us cheer for how concerned and responsible they are. What a bunch of hooey.

Posted by soybaby at July 7, 2006 08:26 PM

Ya, I have given up on Wholey's. Too many things have had serious freshness problems.

If you don't want to deal with shipping for "softies", then you can always make a road trip. Any excuse to get the hell out of PIT is a good excuse.

Andy B is exactly the kind of mind numbled robot that WF is counting on. What about all the little cute birdies, and bald eagles that are turning into feathered spam by these rotating avian-o-matics?

You should talk to people that have applied to work at WF. The reason why the employees of WF think the have the right, nay, the *DUTY* to lecture the hoi polloi is they truely believe they are the chosen ones. Never has the ego of someone being paid $10/hr to stack veggies been so great.

WF is a cult.

Posted by Amos the Poker Cat at July 15, 2006 12:52 AM

soybaby: It may be for PR reasons that Whole Foods does X, but I don't really care so long as X is a good thing (not that I give a rat's ass about the feelings of arthropods). Now, if they cared about buying produce that was actually fresh instead of stuff that looks fresh because it was in a CO2-enriched truck for a week, that would make me happy.

Posted by Benoit at July 18, 2006 07:09 PM

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