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Why Switzerland is sparing live lobsters from the pot

Why Switzerland is sparing live lobsters from the pot
Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki / CC BY 3.0

Does a lobster feel pain when a chef throws it into a vat of water to boil it alive?

The Swiss government has just issued a ruling on this age-old culinary conundrum, hotly debated among cooks and animal rights campaigners – and its answer is yes.

From March 1, cooks in Switzerland will be banned from preparing the crustaceans in this way under a new animal protection law. They’ll first have to dispose of the creature in another, more rapid way.

That could be a sharp knife point to the head or an electric shock from a device such as the Crustastun – a kind of suitcase of death for crustaceans. You place the lobster in the tray, close the lid and press the button to issue a four to six amp current that interrupts its nerve function in less than half a second.

Switzerland has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to protecting animals. In 1992 it became the first nation in the world to recognise animals in its constitution and it has already banned fois gras production, frog-leg farming and battery hens.

This latest move comes in the wake of scientific studies suggesting that crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters have complex nervous systems capable of feeling pain.

Research conducted by Professor Robert Elwood of Queen’s University Belfast on prawns, hermit crabs and shore crabs have led him to conclude that all crustaceans make decisions in response to pain caused by electric shocks. ‘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,’ he told the BBC

But his is far from the mainstream view. Most other scientists in the field argue that lobsters don’t have the brain circuitry to feel pain. How do you know if their reaction is not just an avoidance response, they wonder.

At the same time, how can you tell that it’s not? As Michael Tlusty a lobster biologist at the University of Massachusetts told the New York Times, crustaceans’ nervous systems are so alien to ours, it’s hard to know what they’re experiencing. Indeed, lobsters have not one, but 13 brain centres.

A small country with no coastline, Switzerland may not exactly be an international hotspot for lobster consumption – only around 130,000 of them are snapped up here each year. But even if one of those baker’s dozen of nerve centres has an inkling of being boiled alive, it’s probably right to spare them the torture. 

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