ECONOMY

How to kill a lobster is as much about our moral code as science

The government has commissioned an independent review into the scientific evidence of sentience in crustaceans. The intention is to discover whether crabs and lobsters could be considered to suffer when they are killed by boiling, so we can legislate accordingly in the new Animal Welfare (Sentience Bill), currently in the House of Lords.

Some countries have already banned boiling, notably Norway and New Zealand, both of which have substantial lobster fisheries, but there is likely to be a lot of noisy thrashing about from our own fishing industry and food lovers. Fishermen and fishmongers may have to cook lobsters in advance, while foodies will deplore the interference. 

As with oysters, there is a long history of keeping crustaceans alive until they are consumed, and a supply chain deeply embedded in culture and tradition. The reason is simple. All seafood degrades quickly once killed and those that scavenge on waste, like lobsters, crabs and oysters, also contain organisms in their guts that can poison humans.

Crustaceans and shellfish can stay alive out of seawater, in some cases for many days, and so, since the Romans showed us how, we’ve been harvesting them at the coast then moving them inland where they can be sold “fresh” at a premium. Lobster and crab can be cooked where they are caught, but to remain stable for transport and sale they need to be overcooked for safety.

Lobsters are the only animals we bring into our kitchens alive and take responsibility for killing, which raises justifiable moral questions. Each way of doing it has its own complications.

Some cooks “pith” a lobster by inserting a skewer into the head. It’s a nice idea but lobster physiology doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t have a single central “brain” conveniently located behind the eyes, it has eight “ganglia”, complex clusters of nerves, distributed about its body. The creature still thrashes about in the boiling water but you’re deluding yourself if you think you’ve somehow lobotomised it.

Others split the lobster by inserting a knife along the centre line and quickly bisecting the head, then turning and splitting the tail. This must, they reason, cause such catastrophic disruption that death is instantaneous — much like human execution by decapitation — but we have no understanding of how that works when the “brain” is equally spread through the body.

Some chefs put lobsters into the freezer, believing that a “cold-blooded” creature will become unconscious as the temperature drops. Lobsters are designed to survive in the extreme cold of arctic seas, so it’s reasonable to assume that they remain viable for much of the chilling process. What we can’t know, is whether that is more or less distressing than boiling.

Science has given us the Crustastun, an expensive appliance used in some professional kitchens where the creature is sandwiched between two cushions of wet sponge and swiftly electrocuted. If, indeed, the creature dies without distress, it’s only going to salve the consciences of those rich enough to dine in restaurants that can afford the kit.

If you think that’s morally complicated, consider the technique referred to as “hypnosis”. You stand the lobster on its head and run your finger gently up along the back of the carapace, maybe 20 times. The creature loses muscle tone and then doesn’t react when dropped into boiling water.

As thrashing about is the only real “evidence” we have that boiling causes “suffering”, we are left in a total moral vacuum by this mysterious technique. Is the creature dead, asleep or, God forbid, merely paralysed?

Each individual who eats animals has to decide how they do it. I accept that an animal has to die for me to eat it and, for me at least, the moral duty is to ensure that this is achieved with the least possible pain or distress. Because of my job, I have been able to find out how the killing is done, to witness it and to make my peace with it.

I’ve tried to find the most humane way to kill a lobster but I’ve been unable to find any convincing argument that any other method of killing is more “humane” than dropping them into fiercely boiling water. It is also, quite crucially, the only method that’s impossible to mess up through inexperience or squeamishness.

It’s laudable that the government should examine animal sentience, but scientific investigation, of its very nature, won’t provide conclusive answers. The scientific method has trouble quantifying the experience of a subject that can’t express it.

The problem of suffering in other creatures is less scientific than moral and philosophical. In the case of a creature so very physiologically different from ourselves as a crustacean, it is literally unimaginable. For the answer — if there is one — we need to examine not the lobster but ourselves.

The writer is the FT’s restaurant critic

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