Just like The Jeffersons, the live lobsters at a Whole Foods market in Atlanta, Georgia, are movin' on up.
These, perhaps the classiest of crustaceans, are part of that grocery chain's test program, which seeks to make the lobsters' trip from sea to sale more humane. Thus, the ones that wind up at the Whole Foods location in the well-to-do Virginia Highland neighborhood of Atlanta get their own separate "lobster condo," a cooler, more hospitable water temperature and a dimly lit tank away from glass-tapping children.
"We wanted to treat them less like merchandise or a curiosity to be shown to a kid," said Amy Schaefer, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. "It's not like buying a dozen eggs."
These measures are in place until at least Thursday, when managers at the company's head office in Austin, Texas, have said they will decide whether such changes go far enough to ensure that lobsters are being treated compassionately before they are sold. If the managers decide the lobsters are not treated well enough, Whole Foods has said it will stop selling live lobsters altogether.
A month ago, at the height of the season, the chain pulled live soft-shell crabs from all of its stores amid concerns for their quality of life; and Kate Lowery, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the store would soon review the treatment of live mollusks like clams and oysters.
The store has not addressed the question of whether it is humane to cook crustaceans while they are still alive.
As might be expected, animal rights groups say it is about time someone paid attention to the plight of live shellfish, which are routinely starved before purchase and kept in what activists say are unnatural conditions that are stressful and cruel.
Representatives of the shellfish industry, meanwhile, say they suspect that Whole Foods' threat to stop selling live seafood because of ethical concerns is just an excuse for poor sales.
"Isn't this ridiculous?" asked Robert Pidgeon, director of purchasing for Inland Seafood, an Atlanta-based distributor of live crabs and lobsters to restaurants across the Southeast.
Lobsters, Pidgeon said, have the nervous systems of insects and have dim eyesight that prevents them from seeing much of their surroundings. They also stop eating naturally for months in the wild when water temperatures drop, he said.
"The overwhelming majority of people I've spoken to think Whole Foods is just doing this because they can't sell them," Pidgeon said. "It's not something that sells well in most grocery stores. It's too easy to lose too much money too quickly."
Pidgeon said most people prefer to order lobsters and crabs in restaurants rather than cook them at home, and as a result, live seafood that sits in grocery stores is often discarded.
That is why the Safeway chain just announced that it would stop selling live lobsters, said Brian Dowling, Safeway's vice president of public affairs.
"It's just not a big seller for us," Dowling said.
Publix Super Markets, a grocery chain based in Florida that carries live lobsters in about half its stores, said it had no plans to stop selling lobsters or change the way they were treated.
"If it wasn't selling well, we'd take them out of our stores," said Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix.
Taking live sea creatures out of stores is exactly what animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the US wish grocers would do. Both groups had representatives on the panel that reviewed Whole Foods' compassion standards for live seafood.