Poached, grilled, or baked with Brie.
Served on a roll, or in mac-and-cheese.
Lobsters may be one of the most popular crustaceans in the culinary arts. But when it comes to killing them, there’s a long and unresolved debate about how to do it humanely, and whether that extra consideration is even necessary.
The Swiss Federal Council issued an order this week banning cooks in Switzerland from placing live lobsters into pots of boiling water, joining a few other jurisdictions that have protections for the decapod crustaceans. Switzerland’s new measure stipulates that beginning March 1, lobsters must be knocked out — either by electric shock or “mechanical destruction” of the brain — before boiling them, according to Swiss public broadcaster RTS.
The announcement reignited a long-running debate: Can lobsters even feel pain?
“They can sense their environment,” said Bob Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, “but they probably don’t have the ability to process pain.”
Boiling lobsters alive is already illegal in some places, including New Zealand and Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, according to the animal rights group Viva.
A Swiss government spokeswoman said the law there was driven by the animal rights argument.
“There are more animal friendly methods than boiling alive, that can be applied when killing a lobster,” Eva van Beek of the Federal Office of Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs said in an email.
Van Beek told The Washington Post there had been a motion to ban all lobster imports to the country, but the federal government “thought this measure was not applicable due to international trading laws.” Officials, she said, “also thought we could improve the animal protection aspect.”
So the legislation was amended.
And anyway, van Beek added: “Switzerland’s consumption of lobster [is] negligible. We are a landlocked country, lobster is thus regarded as a rather exotic delicacy, which is served only in special restaurants.”
Jeff Bennett of the Maine International Trade Center said the United States’ live lobster exports to the European Union in 2016 totaled $147 million. But the United States exported only $368,000 worth of live lobsters to Switzerland that year, he said.
Switzerland’s new order also states that lobsters, and other decapod crustaceans, can no longer be transported on ice or in ice water, but must be kept in the habitat they’re used to — saltwater, according to RTS.
The issue of lobsters in kitchens is controversial.
Do live lobsters really scream when they’re plopped into boiling water, or is that merely the sound of air escaping from their bodies?
Do they squirm because they’re in pain, or simply because they can sense heat?
Bayer, a scientist at the Lobster Institute, said these questions have been debated for decades — and the answers lie somewhere in science.
Although the most common opinion held by researchers is that lobsters (and their hard-shell relatives) cannot process pain, there is in fact a subgroup of scientists who vehemently disagree.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that crabs avoided electric shocks, suggesting they can, in fact, feel pain. Bob Elwood, one of the study’s authors and a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, told BBC News at the time: “I don’t know what goes on in a crab’s mind . . . But what I can say is the whole behavior goes beyond a straightforward reflex response and it fits all the criteria of pain.”
However, marine biologist Jeff Shields, a professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, said it’s unclear whether the reaction to negative stimuli is a pain response or simply an avoidance response. “That’s the problem,” he said, “there’s no way to tell.”
But because lobsters do not have the neural pathways that mammals have and use in pain response, Shields said he does not believe lobsters feel pain.
According to an explainer from the Lobster Institute, a research and educational organization, lobsters have a primitive nervous system, akin to an insect, such as a grasshopper. “Neither insects nor lobsters have brains,” according to the institute. “For an organism to perceive pain it must have a complex nervous system. Neurophysiologists tell us that lobsters, like insects, do not process pain.”
Bayer, the institute’s director, said boiling them is likely to be more traumatic for the cook than the crustacean; for the squeamish, he recommends simply placing lobsters in the freezer first to numb them, or putting them in a sink filled with tap water, which also kills them.
But biological anthropologist Barbara King, a retired professor at the College of William & Mary, said there is a long history of underestimating animal pain.
“I’m not a biologist, but I think the preponderance of evidence suggests they can feel pain; I am convinced they can feel pain,” said King, author of “Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat.”
She added: “Whether we know or don’t know, it’s our ethical responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt and not put them into boiling water.”
King said there are debates about whether people should eat lobsters at all, “so in my view, it’s a pretty low bar to make sure that if we do eat them, we don’t torture them first.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has done exposés on how crabs and lobsters are killed, applauded Switzerland’s new ban on boiling live lobsters, noting in a statement that “when plunged into scalding-hot water, they [crustaceans] writhed wildly and scraped at the sides of the pot in a desperate attempt to escape. So to anyone in a civilized society who isn’t Bear Grylls, this legislation makes sense.”
But, the animal rights organization added, while “this law may put an end to one of the cruellest ways of killing these fascinating beings, the best way to help them is simply to leave them off our plates by choosing instead from the multitude of delicious vegan foods readily available to us all.”
Tanja Florenthal, academic director of the prestigious César Ritz Colleges, which has campuses across Switzerland, said she is pleased about the new Swiss ban. Instructors at the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland have already implemented the changes in their lessons, she said.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been teaching them to do it with boiling water; but that’s changing now,” she told The Washington Post this week. “We are going to take this opportunity to have a discussion with the students to see if there are other ways to do the killings in a more ethical and respectful manner, not only for lobsters.”
She added: “I think we have a responsibility to make sure our animals are treated right.”