Swiss chefs will have to find more humane ways to cook lobsters. Officially, as of March, it will be illegal to boil lobsters alive in Switzerland. Instead, they should be stunned first. The decision was made after more and more evidence kept piling up supporting the fact that lobsters can indeed feel pain.
Local lawmakers voted an article stating “the practice of plunging live lobsters into boiling water, which is common in restaurants, is no longer permitted,” as part of a wider overhaul of the nation’s animal-protection law.
The Swiss take animal rights very seriously, having many laws in place that look after the physical and psychological well-being of animals, wildlife and pets alike. Some laws might even look silly to some, like the fact that it’s illegal to own just one guinea pig or parrot. Such animals are considered victims of abuse if they don’t regularly interact with others of their species. But for the Swiss, it’s a way to ensure an ethical, compassionate behavior towards animals.
Once the law comes into force, only after the lobster’s brain has been destroyed either with an electric shock or “mechanically” can the animal be boiled.
An urban myth responsible for a lot of suffering
In 2013, British researchers concluded shellfish, like crabs or lobsters, can feel pain.
This raised quite a few questions, as crabs are typically boiled alive. Since the crustaceans have a very primitive central nervous system, it has always been thought that they do not experience pain. The panic and struggle crabs experience when dived in boiled water has always been attributed to a reflex behavior, rather than pain-induced self-preservation.
The team led by Bob Elwood, an animal behavior researcher at the Queen’s University Belfast, devised two clever experiments that showed how crustaceans feel pain.
The scientists took 90 crabs and put them in a tank with two dark shelters. After most crabs selected their shelter of choice, one of the shelters was electrically charged. The scientists pulled out the crabs from the tank and after some rest inserted them back in. Most stuck with what they knew best, returning to the shelter they had chosen the first time around, only this time some unfortunate enough to choose the electrified shelter got shocked. When introduced to the tank for the third time, however, the vast majority of shocked crabs now went to the alternative safe shelter. Those not shocked continued to use their preferred shelter. This, says Elwood, strongly suggests that they learned to hate the shock.
In the second experiment, scientists presented crabs with two types of shell, one of which the animals are known to prefer, and gave them shocks when they chose the favored one. Whenever they were presented with a new shell, even the kind which they didn’t prefer, they chose it over the first one. This yet again suggests pain aversion.
“On a philosophical point, it is impossible to demonstrate absolutely that an animal experiences pain,” lead researcher Bob Elwood of the Queen’s School of Biological Sciences, was quoted as saying in a press release. “However, various criteria have been suggested regarding what we would expect if pain were to be experienced. The research at Queen’s has tested those criteria and the data is consistent with the idea of pain. Thus, we conclude that there is a strong probability of pain and the need to consider the welfare of these animals.”
According to professor Elwood, the most pressing concern are not domestic cooks and resturants but rather major food processing plants where animals are routinely dismembered before being killed. He believes crustaceans should be labeled with relevant welfare information so consumers make more informed choices.
Besides addressing cooking methods, the Swiss law also outlines new guidelines on transporting the animals from the oceans to, ultimately, your dinner table. According to the new law, “live crustaceans, including the lobster, may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water,” say the rules adopted by the government on Wednesday. “Aquatic species must always be kept in their natural environment.”
The new laws in the Alpine country also crack down on illegal puppy farms and automatic devices that punish dogs for barking. Hopefully, other countries will soon follow suit.
If you really enjoy a nice lobster dinner but would like to know what’s the most humane to kill them, the Australian RSPCA has a guide.