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Are you torturing your seafood? Switzerland bans boiling live lobsters

Do lobsters feel pain? Scientists aren't sure. But Switzerland recently banned the boiling of live lobsters and it's the subject of a hot debate.
/ Source: TODAY

Between the chopping, searing, slicing and dicing, the kitchen can be a pretty dangerous place. Especially if you're the food.

But starting in March, lobsters in Switzerland can celebrate the fact their time in the kitchen may be a little less painful since it will be illegal to boil the crustaceans alive without stunning them first. Under the guidelines of the newly-announced ban, the country is requiring that kitchens use a taser-like device to quickly kill seafood before cooking.

Many animal rights activists are considering this a huge victory for crustacean-kind.

Crustastun device
Gill Allen / Crustasun

“Crustaceans look very different to farmed or domesticated animals, so some people find it hard to imagine that they’re capable of feeling pain,” said Dominika Piasecka, spokeswoman for The Vegan Society.

Piasecka told TODAY Food that the oldest vegan society in the world “welcomes” this ban and hopes it will make people think twice about putting animals into food groups. PETA is also praising the new law, which is similar to those already observed in New Zealand and Italy.

“To anyone in a civilized society who isn't Bear Grylls, this legislation makes sense,” Ingrid Newkirk, PETA President, told TODAY via email.

Trevor Corson, author of “The Secret Life of Lobsters,” tells TODAY Food that although he’s no “radical animal-rights activist," he considers this move a “slam-dunk." “We would never boil alive a chicken or cow, that would be ridiculous,” he said. “Boiling lobsters alive has always been somewhat ridiculous, really the main reason we've been doing it for so long is simply that, until recently, we haven't had a convenient way to stun and kill a lobster and extract the meat from that heavily armored shell before cooking it.”

The Secret Life of Lobsters
Trevor Corson

But whether lobsters feel pain, and to what extent, is still a major debate among scientists. The scientific community has yet to reach a general consensus on whether crustaceans feel anything when they're boiled or stabbed. Many agree lobsters have senses — and are aware of the environment around them. But do they feel pain ... or even understand what pain is?

Probably not, say researchers at the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute. According to its FAQ page, “Neither insects nor lobsters have brains. For an organism to perceive pain it must have a more complex nervous system. Neurophysiologists tell us that lobsters, like insects, do not process pain.”

Even if they do feel pain, Richard A. Wahle, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences isn't buying the argument that stunning them is any more humane. "I’m not convinced the Swiss solution by stunning them with an electric shock is any better than dropping them head first in boiling water," Wahle told TODAY Food.

Don’t get cheated! How to tell if you’re eating real lobster
Lance Booth / TODAY

But why do lobsters jerk around and attempt to escape when dropped into a pot of boiling water? The Lobster Institute says that it’s simply a reflex: an automatic response to its external environment, which in this case is really, really hot water.

Another good question is must lobsters — often considered the Rolls Royce of entrees at most restaurants — be boiled alive in order to taste good? The answer is probably not. Matt Zubrod, Executive Chef at The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado agrees that lobsters can react to stimuli but probably don’t process suffering. Still, he abstains from the practice of live boilings in his kitchen

“I don’t think they feel pain, I know they don’t scream, they have no vocal cords,” says Chef Zubrod. “In any event, we normally pierce them in the head, splitting it in two before removing tails and claws that have different cooking times.” TODAY Food also talked to Adam Kelinson, a personal chef in the Hamptons.

“I was taught to gently stroke the belly of the lobster prior to killing it, knife or pot, to put it to sleep as a more ‘humane’ approach. It does seem to calm them down,” Kelinson told TODAY Food.

The U.S., which consumes far more lobster than landlocked Switzerland, is the world’s second largest lobster producer (behind Canada) so the issue may eventually be debated in earnest among lawmakers here.

But if it does, Red Lobster doesn't have much to worry about. Nicole Bott, Director of Communications and External Relations at Red Lobster tells TODAY Food that live boilings aren't practiced at any of its more than 700 restaurants. “Unlike some seafood restaurants, Red Lobster does not boil lobsters alive. Our culinary professionals are trained to humanely end the lobsters' lives moments before they are cooked so our guests get the freshest, most delicious lobsters," says Bott.

Whether it's a casual lunch at Red Lobster or a white-tablecloth dinner at The Little Nell, you should be able to enjoy your seafood dish sans guilt.

“There is much to celebrate about eating lobster, because the iconic Gulf of Maine lobster fishery has done a great job harvesting lobster sustainably,” adds Corson. “We can honor the lobster, the fisherman, and the meal by pursuing the same humane standards we would seek for humane preparation of other meats."

Editor's note: On Jan. 17, TODAY included a quote in this story from Richard A. Wahle, Ph.D., of the University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, who claimed that some institutions advocate injecting lobsters with a solution of potassium chloride as a more humane method of killing crustaceans. The practice of consumers or home cooks injecting lethal doses of potassium chloride into lobsters that are to be eaten by people is not recommended by professionals and could potentially be dangerous to human health.