How To Kill a Lobster Humanely


Photo by Simon Goldenberg/Flickr CC

Americans worried about European-style big government have something new to fear: the police arresting you for cooking. In particular, cooking crabs and lobsters. Seriously.

In March of this year, a scientific team in the UK released a report indicating, through the use of some novel experiments, that crabs may well feel pain. The study overturned decades of claims that crustaceans can't feel much at all, and garnered worldwide attention. Now, in this week's edition of New Scientist, a researcher in the UK named Peter Fraser, who uses crabs in his experiments, has fought back, writing that crabs feeling pain is about as likely as crabs being able to enjoy a good opera.

So the debate continues, except that, astonishingly, Mr. Fraser may turn out to be on the wrong side. I wouldn't be surprised if there are chefs out there who play opera for their lobsters to ease their final moments. And I can tell you for certain that there is a small army of animal-rights activists in Europe lobbying for new laws for crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and other invertebrates. The idea is to give these charming underwater bugs the same legal protections against cruelty already afforded to pigs, cows, and other mammals. Which, for starters, would mean not boiling them alive.

With or without a law, it would actually make perfect sense to try to minimize the suffering of crustaceans when we prepare them for cooking.

If this sounds crazy, consider the fact that New Zealand has already included crustaceans in its animal protection laws, and that in 2005, the Italian town of Reggio Emilia banned the boiling of lobsters. That same year, the Scottish group Advocates for Animals released a convincing report arguing that invertebrates possess much of the neural circuitry to process pain. A UK group called the Shellfish Network has been a tireless proponent of crustacean rights, and given the mounting evidence and changing attitudes, European parliaments seem at least willing to consider such laws at the national level. The crab report this March has provided additional ammunition. People like Mr. Fraser are nervous.

If Europe does eventually adopt crustacean-rights legislation, the US will have a hard time avoiding the issue. So what's a cook to do -- prepare for a future of boiling lobsters and crabs in the utmost secrecy, with the doors locked and the shades drawn? For most people, dispatching live animals in the kitchen is traumatic enough as it is, without the fear of landing in jail.

But therein lies the crux of the matter. After all, we are killing animals to eat them. Those pigs, cows, and other mammals who already have legal protections are also getting killed to eat, and the laws, however imperfect, are there simply to reduce unnecessary suffering in the process. Even with further advances in science, we may never know precisely what crustaceans feel. But it doesn't take much of a leap to imagine that being boiled alive isn't pleasant, and that's exactly why we're squeamish. In a way, it's strange that our basic laws against animal cruelty don't already include crustaceans.

It seems to me that rather than fan the flames of this debate, we could easily just sidestep it. With or without a law, it would actually make perfect sense, and would be entirely in line with our treatment of other creatures, to try to minimize the suffering of crabs, lobsters, crayfish, and other such critters when we prepare them for cooking. No gourmand need oppose such a thing in principle.

The only question is, what are our options? In the UK, scientists predicting changes to the law have made news with a quirky device that kills crustaceans humanely with a quick and overwhelming electric shock; to my mind, the inventors of this machine deserve an award for coming up with the name alone: the Crustastun. There is a high-capacity industrial version and a countertop model. As much as I would relish outfitting my counter with a shiny silver lobster zapper--garnering me prestige that no Kitchen Aid appliance could equal--I haven't the space between the toaster, blender, and coffee maker. Nor could most home cooks afford to buy one; reports put the cost somewhere north of a thousand dollars.

Another, even newer option is to buy our lobster the same way we now buy just about every other type of meat we eat--as faceless pieces of flesh in a package. Technological advances in the form of massive industrial pumping chambers--called hydrostatic pressure processors--have recently allowed lobsters to be crushed to death quickly in big batches, at the same time separating their meat from the shells without having to cook it. But questions remain as to whether this method dispatches the animals speedily enough to be considered humane.

My preference is for the old-fashioned way, which, like the Crustastun, is humane-approved. Before boiling, I place the crab or lobster in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes to slow its metabolism and dull its senses, then flip it over and split the main body section of the animal in half with the swift stroke of a large kitchen knife.

There are days when doing this makes me want to be a vegetarian. But then I think, if I'm going to eat meat, it's better to be clear-eyed about it. Bring on the law, then; let's honor the last living creatures in our kitchens, and kill them with respect ourselves. While we still can.