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'I've never heard them complain'

Could the Whole Foods lobsters-feel-pain ruling dampen our lust for oyster murder?

ANNE KINGSTON August 14 2006
THE BACK PAGES

'I've never heard them complain'

Could the Whole Foods lobsters-feel-pain ruling dampen our lust for oyster murder?

ANNE KINGSTON August 14 2006

'I've never heard them complain'

taste

Could the Whole Foods lobsters-feel-pain ruling dampen our lust for oyster murder?

ANNE KINGSTON

It was in jest that Bertrand Russell uttered his famous quip about animal rights: “Where will it end?” he asked. “Votes for oysters?” But, today, the British philosopher deserves points for prescience: the latest frontier of ethical dining is aquatic, with talk of fish pain thresholds, caught fish smothering to death, even oyster quality of life. Last month, Whole Foods threw down the gauntlet on the “do-lobstersfeel-pain?” debate, announcing it would no longer sell live lobsters because it could not guarantee humane treatment on their journey from sea to table. The food blogosphere reacted quickly. “Where will it end?” one poster griped. “A yogourt liberation league, protecting the rights of bacteria?” Chef and author Michael Ruhlman vented on megnut. com: “No more salmon roe! Think of all those unborn salmon you’re smearing on your toast and dotting on your blini! All the good salmon deeds that will remain undone!” Sparking the most vitriol, though, were reports Whole Foods Market was zeroing in on treatment of clams and oysters. Company spokeswoman Kate Klotz clarifies the confusion: “Whole Foods is examining the treatment of crawfish and Dungeness crabs, and has no plans to review oysters,” she says. “But we can’t say for certain we won’t.”

Such are the vagaries of ethical dining: even an insentient mollusk isn’t an open and shucked case. But suggesting the oyster belongs in the campaign to improve the living—and killing—conditions of the animals we eat, as ridiculous as it seems, does offer perspective. For oysters don’t permit any pretence of “humane slaughter” such as that promised by Whole Foods’s revised lobster policy. (It now sells the crustaceans precooked and

frozen, serene in the knowledge that they lived their last days in individual “lobster condos”—they prefer solitude, studies saybefore being shocked to death in a high-pressure water chamber that provides a more “humane” demise than being boiled alive or having a knife thrust through their tiny skulls.)

The oyster’s slaughter, on the other hand, is unapologetically human: a squeeze of lemon, a shaving of horseradish, a slurp and the deed is done. In Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher’s appreciation of the most prized of mollusks, she observes that man is the oyster’s greatest enemy because “he protects her from the others only to eat her for himself.”

The killer’s conscience is salved, if need be, by the fact the briny bivalve is eaten “raw” rather than “live.” That and the fact that though oysters are wondrous creatures, transmuting from male to female throughout their lives, they defy anthropomorphism; unlike lobsters thrashing in what we assume must be pain, they submit to the shucker’s knife with preternatural calm. True, shellfish activists could mount the case that oysters shutting themselves so tightly out of water suggests a will to live. Or they could present as de facto evidence Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale of seafood abuse, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” in which trusting oysters are tricked into becoming dinner. Then there is

oysters’ newly discovered cultural significance to ponder as revealed in The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. In it, Mark Kurlansky chronicles the mollusks’ defining influence on the economy, gastronomy and ecology of New York City. Perhaps they’re now too important to eat.

Considering the oyster too closely, obviously, blurs perspective. “People don’t know how to think about this,” says Ruhlman. “Oysters are not people; they don’t feel pain; there’s no consciousness.” Fie believes preoccupation with treatment of luxuries such as lobster and foie gras-producing ducks has taken focus off factory farming where the greatest abuses take place. “My definition of humane treatment is to let animals live according to the way they are built, not according to agribusinesses’ law of cost-efficiencies,” he says.

Rodney Clark, the founder of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto, laughs at the suggestion oysters could be subject to inhumane treatment. “I’ve never heard one complain,” he says. “The farmed oyster is a manageable, renewable mollusk, monitored for safety.” He believes that there are more important campaigns to fight, such as the corporatization of the fishing industry. The second-generation oyster purveyor does practise seafood ethics, however, refusing to serve wild shrimp or endangered fish like Chilean sea bass. “It’s a desecration of nature,” he says. He too wonders where it will end. “Cruelty to cut lettuce?” he suggests. That’s a joke, for now. M