Lobsters are a delicious delicacy loved by coastal dwellers across the world – but is boiling them alive inhumane?
In a new law, the Swiss government has banned the common culinary practice of throwing the crustaceans into boiling water while they are still conscious.
The move is a response to studies that suggest lobsters are sentient with advanced nervous systems that may feel pain.
From March 2018, lobsters being prepared in Switzerland will need to be knocked out before they’re put to death, or killed instantly. They’ll also get other protections while in transit.
“Live crustaceans, including the lobster, may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water. Aquatic species must always be kept in their natural environment,” says the new law, according to Swiss Info. “Crustaceans must now be stunned before they are killed,”
The new edict comes in the wake of a recent Italian law that decreed lobsters can’t be kept on ice in restaurant kitchens.
Switzerland’s decision is applauded by Professor Robert Elwood, emeritus professor in ecology, evolution, behaviour and environmental economics at Queens University, Belfast.
Elwood has conducted a series of experiments that suggest crustaceans are sentient and that boiling them alive is inhumane.
“With the data we know, it is highly likely that the animal will be in pain,” he says. “We give protection to birds and mammals, currently we give very little protection to decapod crustaceans – lobsters and crabs – and the question comes, why is there this difference?”
Elwood’s studies suggest crustaceans will make serious life and death decisions when exposed to pain. In experiments, hermit crabs were quick to abandon a shell if it was exposed to a large electric shock.
“They are really giving up a very valuable resource that means life to them, essentially, in order to escape from the noxious stimulus,” explains Elwood.
The scientist says he is pleased governments are considering this data and making changes accordingly.
“It’s a positive move, the Swiss are looking at a potential problem and trying to deal with it,” he says.
But for Elwood, this is only the first step in addressing this issue.
“I don’t know how many lobsters are boiled in Switzerland per year, but it’s probably quite a small amount compared with the billions upon billions of crustaceans that are used each year in the human food chain,” he says.
The new law doesn’t mean taking lobster off the menu. There are methods of killing them which are considered more humane – and which Swiss chefs might now adopt.
“With an experienced chef, using a large, sharp knife, thrust into the right place into the head of the lobster and then cutting down along the midway – that should kill the lobster very quickly and effectively – and is probably the most humane way in a small operation,” suggests Elwood.
Elwood also pinpoints a device called the Crustastun, which destroys the lobster’s nervous system.
Elwood hopes to discourage the practice of not only boiling but also dismembering while the animal is alive. “I would question the use of that in a modern society,” he says.
Time will tell whether other countries will follow Switzerland’s example.