Whole Foods Market Inc. said Friday that it would stop selling live lobsters and soft-shell crabs as part of its policy of treating animals humanely.
Only frozen lobster products from suppliers that meet handling and processing standards developed during a seven-month evaluation will reach Whole Foods stores, the Austin, Texas-based company said.
Whole Foods is entering the debate over whether crustaceans and other animals without spinal columns experience pain the way vertebrates such as humans and dogs do.
The company referred to a report published by the European Food Safety Authority Animal Health and Welfare panel in November that found lobsters display complex forms of behavior.
Lobsters and crabs "have some degree of awareness, feeling pain and having the ability to learn," Whole Foods said. Many lobsters spend several months in storage facilities before being displayed in supermarket tanks, the company said.
One marine biologist disagrees with Whole Foods' assessment of lobsters.
"We don't believe they feel pain and there are a number of studies that back this up," said Bob Bayer, professor and executive director at the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. "They really don't have a brain. These are really not kind and gentle animals."
The institute receives donations from the lobster industry, Bayer said.
Whole Foods said it might resume selling live lobsters if it found improvements in their handling.