Another country has banned boiling live lobsters. Some scientists wonder why

A dish of white pepper lobster.
A dish of white pepper lobster. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER FILE

When it comes to killing these crustaceans for food, the debate is unresolved on how to do it humanely and whether that extra consideration is even necessary

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - Poached, grilled or baked with brie.  Served on a roll or in mac 'n' cheese.  

Lobsters may be one of the most popular crustaceans in the culinary arts. But when it comes to killing them, there is 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 on 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 Mr 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 animal rights group Viva. 


A Swiss government spokesman 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 e-mail. She 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, she 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.”

Mr Jeff Bennett of the Maine International Trade Centre said the United States’ live lobster exports to the European Union in 2016 totalled US$147 million (S$194 million). But the US exported only US$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 are used to – salt water, according to RTS. 

The issue of lobsters in kitchens is controversial.  Do live lobsters really scream when they are plopped into boiling water or is that merely the sound of air escaping from their bodies? Do they squirm because they are in pain or simply because they can sense heat? 

Mr 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 sub-group 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. Professor 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 behaviour 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 is 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, he said he does not believe lobsters feel pain. 

According to an explainer from the Lobster Institute, a research and educational organisation, 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.”

Mr 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.” She 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 exposes on how crabs and lobsters are killed, applauded Switzerland’s new ban on boiling live 
lobsters. It noted in a statement: "When plunged into scalding-hot water, (crustaceans) writhed wildly and scraped at the sides of the pot in a desperate attempt to escape. So to anyone in a civilised society who isn’t Bear Grylls, this legislation makes sense”.

But, the animal rights organisation 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.”

Ms Tanja Florenthal, academic director of the prestigious Cesar 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 last 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.”