The culinary world isn’t lacking in controversial practices. To produce the delicacy foie gras, ducks and geese are force-fed corn, and the calves used for veal are kept virtually immobile for their entire lives. Now, Switzerland has released an order to ban another controversial cooking practice: boiling lobsters alive.
The flesh of a lobster begins to decay as soon as the animal dies, so it’s a common practice to keep the crustacean alive as long as possible before cooking it. While some chefs choose to skewer a lobster’s brain to kill it just prior to meal preparation, others kill and cook simultaneously by placing the lobster into a pot of boiling water while it’s still alive.
Soon, the latter practice will be illegal in Switzerland. On January 10, the nation’s Federal Council released an order requiring that lobsters be “stunned” before they are killed. According to Swiss broadcaster RTS, the only acceptable methods of stunning are electric shock or the “mechanical destruction” of the brain.
The order, which goes into effect on March 1, 2018, also includes new rules regarding the transportation of lobsters: “Live crustaceans, including the lobster, may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water.” Instead, they must be kept in their “natural environment,” according to the RTS report.
Humane or Pointless?
The Swiss order is part of a larger reform of the nation’s animal protection legislation. However, the move obviously won’t stop lobsters from being killed, and whether it will actually prevent any suffering is debatable.
While no one knows for sure if lobsters are biologically capable of feeling pain, some scientific research does support the claim. According to a 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, for example, crustaceans will avoid being shocked by electricity, a move the researchers wrote was “consistent with key criteria for pain experience.”
The University of Maine’s Lobster Institute disagrees with this assessment, asserting that lobsters cannot process pain because they lack a complex nervous system.
“Cooking a lobster is like cooking a big bug,” Robert Bayer, the Institute’s executive director, told Business Insider. “Do you have the same concern when you kill a fly or a mosquito?”
With the subject still up for debate, biological anthropologist Barbara King suggests erring on the side less likely to cause suffering.
“Whether we know or don’t know [if lobsters can feel pain], it’s our ethical responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt and not put them into boiling water,” she told The Washington Post.
The Ethics of Meat
Switzerland isn’t alone in considering the ethical implications of meat consumption.
In June 2017, Italy’s highest court passed its own law banning restaurants from storing live lobsters on ice prior to cooking. Animal rights groups, scientists, and thought leaders have all criticized the meat industry at large — and not just for its often inhumane treatment of animals. The meat currently found in most supermarkets is also wreaking havoc on the environment.
Several companies are attempting to grow meat in labs, and if they can successfully produce a product that tastes like the real thing at a comparable price point (and convince the public to try it), they may be able to prevent animal suffering while also decreasing the environmental impact of food production.
For now, the focus is primarily on beef, chicken, and pork, but perhaps lab-grown lobster meat could appear on the menu one day as well.