Boiled alive! Swiss ban cruelty to lobsters

Cruel delicacy? Over 280,000 tons of lobster were caught in 2010.

Should humans be allowed to plunge living lobsters into the bubbling pot? Switzerland says not, igniting a furious debate about which animals feel pain — and just how much it matters anyway.

What would be the worst possible way to die? The question sets imaginations running wild, but being slowly cooked in scalding water must surely be near the top.

Yet in a restaurant near you, this fate regularly befalls one creature.

Lobsters, like other shellfish, have harmful bacteria naturally present in their flesh. Once the lobster is dead, these bacteria can rapidly multiply and release toxins that may not be destroyed by cooking. The best way to minimise the chance of food poisoning is simple: you boil the lobster alive.

Last week Switzerland banned the practice, joining just New Zealand and Reggio Emilia, a city in northern Italy, in stipulating how lobsters should be killed. The new measure states that lobsters must be knocked out — either by electric shock or “mechanical destruction” of the brain — before being boiled.

There is no scientific consensus as to whether lobsters feel pain. When dropped into the pot, their tails twitch, an escape reaction showing that they can react to stimuli, but this is not proof of pain.

The Lobster Institute in Maine argues that the lobster's primitive nervous system is most similar to the nervous system of an insect. "Cooking a lobster is like cooking a big bug," said Robert Bayer, the institute’s executive director. He added: "Do you have the same concern when you kill a fly or a mosquito?"

Maybe not, but the fact that a lobster is one of the few foods that people have to kill themselves before eating it means it inspires compassion, even though it could hardly be called “cute”.

But there is a great problem at the heart of all this. However humanely you kill a lobster, such as by chilling it in the freezer and sending it to sleep before killing it, the end result is the same. Even if the lobster feels no pain, it is still dead. Opponents of the death penalty are not persuaded that using anaesthetics and lethal injections in executions renders the killing ethical.

So the answer, surely, must be vegetarianism? Or is a certain amount of cruelty to animals just a natural part of being human?

Sins of the flesh

Some argue that this is simply a question of nature: man evolved by eating other animals, and we would not have evolved as quickly on a diet of tofu and lettuce leaves. We must resist the temptation to anthropomorphise lobsters. They cannot feel sadness or consciousness as we do. Boil away, and tuck in.

But many others predict that future generations will view our current eating habits as barbaric. Just because something is “natural”, it does not make it ethical or even necessary. Humans have now found out how to eat well as vegetarians and vegans. This is killing for selfish gain: what could be less moral?

You Decide

  1. Is killing an animal and eating it moral, natural, both or neither?
  2. If pigs are more intelligent than lobsters, is killing a lobster less wrong than killing a pig?


  1. Split into groups and pick an animal. Find out five facts about how its brain works and how intelligent it is.
  2. Write a 500-word defence of eating other animals.

Some People Say...

“Vegetarian — that's an old Indian word meaning lousy hunter.”

Andy Rooney

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Switzerland has become only the second country to abolish the practice of boiling lobsters alive on the grounds of animal welfare. We know that this boiling is not done to make the lobster taste nicer, but to make it safer to eat by stopping any harmful bacteria from multiplying. However, many believe that killing a lobster — or any other creature — in any way is an act of cruelty.
What do we not know?
What truly goes on inside the mind of a lobster or any other animal. It is perfectly obvious that some mammals feel pain and have emotions similar to those of a human, but for decapod crustaceans the biology becomes more mysterious.

Word Watch

New measure
Switzerland’s new order, which comes into effect on March 1st, also states that lobsters can no longer be transported on ice or in ice water, but must be kept in the habitat they are used to: saltwater.
Whether lobsters feel pain
Those who think lobsters can feel pain point to the fact that they release a hormone called cortisol when they are boiled alive. This is the same hormone as is released by humans when we feel pain.
The most northerly state of the contiguous United States is famous for its lobster, hosting an annual festival celebrating the creature.
Kill a fly or a mosquito
Although most people will happily crush a fly or swat a mosquito if it is inconveniencing them, some cultures object even to this. Jains, members of a religious group in India, for example, take the concept of Ahimsa (non-violence) to extremes. For example, they often do not go out at night, when they are more likely to step upon an insect. In their view, injury caused by carelessness is like injury caused by deliberate action.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.