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Q and A Banner - #3 (World Records-1)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Because we have to and no-one truly knows!
(Warning: some not-so-nice stuff ahead)

I know, I know... everyone must have asked these questions - whether they eat lobsters or not - at least one time or another in their lifetime and believe it or not, I can't really find a solid 'yes or no' answer to the second question.

"Free the lobster"
by Flickr user yooperann
We all know animal activists (such as the Lobster Liberation Front-(LLF) and PETA) and possibly even vegetarians, have been fighting for lobsters' rights for eons in regards to the cruelness and inhumane way of killing them.  (The video way below shows chef Eric Ripert saying the best way to kill them is to "take a big knife, and go through the head, and split the head in half..") before cooking them.  Ouch!  I don't like the sounds of that either.

Another popular question is - do they scream?  Say what? Scream?  I've boiled lobsters a few times before (now I can't do it anymore - getting softer as I grow older), and I don't remember hearing them 'scream' (thank God), otherwise I wouldn't be able to eat them for sure.  But back to the questions - why do we have to boil lobsters alive and do they feel pain?

Why DO We Boil Lobsters Alive?

"July birthday boiling pot feed at Abueloville"
by Flickr user marioanima
Well, it seems the simple answer for this one is taste, texture and safety.  The lobster must be cooked alive because the meat will spoil otherwise. The bacteria enters the meat quickly after death. Ehow explains that the lobster releases 'self-digestive' fluids that can spoil the meat.

I guess it's like finding a fish floating about when you go out fishing.  You wouldn't eat that would you?  You don't know how long it has been dead.  It could cause sicknes through food poisoning and probably taste like crap anyways!  So unfortunately for the lobster, it is best cooked alive.  Some have tryied hypnotizing or freezing it slightly or as I've said earlier - splitting their head in half! (I cringe everytime I have to type that or even think about it).

But The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine says the lobsters will stop 'squriming around' after 30 seconds if you place them on ice or freeze them prior to boiling. So maybe that's the best 'humane' way since THEY ARE the experts. Even the Gulf of Main Research Institue backed this up scientifically:

What is the best (humane) way to cook a lobster?
How to cook a lobster in the most humane manner has been a concern of guilt-ridden chefs for generations. In order to put the matter to a rest scientifically, one researcher instructed his graduate students to boil lobsters after having subjected them to various relaxation techniques. The students determined which method of dispatching them was the kindest by counting the number of tails flicks heard in the kettle before each lobster succumbed to the boiling water. They tried hyponotizing the subjects (see how to do this further below under 'Did You Know'..), soaking them in fresh water, heating them slowly from room temperature to boiling, and other accepted strategies. They found that putting them in the fridge before cooking to numb them up, (as happens naturally in winter), resulted in the lowest number of tail twitches. So, according to modern science, a few minutes in the freezer means less agony in the kettle.

So, now for the REAL question....

Do They Feel Pain?

Wouldn't you?  Ok, I know, they are NOT humans.

However, there are so many conflicting reports and expert opinions from scientific studies, professional chefs and the likes that I really don't know what to believe anymore.  Some say they CANNOT feel pain:

The nervous system of a lobster is very simple – not unlike that of an insect. 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. - The Lobster Institue

The invertebrates have such primitive nervous systems (they have no brain and 100,000 neurons versus a human’s 100 billion) that they don’t feel pain. A 2005 study financed by the Norwegian government reinforced this view. - Chow

While lobsters react to different stimuli, such as boiling water, the reactions are escape mechanisms, not a conscious response or an indication of pain, they say. - Lobster biologists in Maine aka The Lobster Institute

Then there is Mike Loughlin, who studied the boiling of lobsters when he was a University of Maine graduate student, said lobsters simply lack the brain capacity to feel pain.
"It's a semantic thing: No brain, no pain," said Loughlin, who now works as a biologist at the Maine Atlantic Salmon Commission. - cbsnews

Close up of head of live lobster  shipped for consumption in the United States.
Source wikipedia

The Lobster Institue also explained the 'twitching' of a lobster's tail when dropped in water, as just a reflex known as the "escape response".   It is a reflex action to any sudden stimulus - a reaction that was first identified by George Johnson in 1924. The lobster is reacting to an external factor, such as an elevated water temperature.

So what are they trying to say here?  Would it be akin to like the doc tapping your knee and your knee jerking?  No pain - just a reflex?  I mean, you can cut up an earthworm and it still continues on with its business - so maybe they have something here.  And remember that study financed by the Norwegian government mentioned above?  What's that all about?  Apparently it was a study released in 2005, which suggested that lobsters cannot feel pain due to their diminished nervous capacity.  In other words, the report assumes that the violent reaction of lobsters to boiling water is a reflex to noxious stimuli.  This all came about when their government was considering a ban on live worms as fish bait under revisions to its animal protection laws - but only if it hurt. Norwegian scientists were asked to investigate pain, discomfort and stress in invertebrates and Wenche Farstad of the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science in Oslo claimed that the answer is no.

Well, I was ready to believe all this until PETA's Karin Robertson called the Norwegian study biased, saying the government doesn't want to hurt the country's fishing industry and when a review by the Scottish animal welfare group Advocate for Animals released in the same year reported that "scientific evidence ... strongly suggests that there is a potential for [lobsters] to experience pain and suffering". This is primarily because lobsters (and other decapod crustaceans) "have opioid receptors and respond to opioids (analgesics such as morphine) in a similar way to vertebrates", indicating that lobsters' reaction to injury changes when painkillers are applied. The similarities in lobsters' and vertebrates' stress systems and behavioral responses to noxious stimuli were given as additional evidence for their capacity for pain..
Also, the fact that even the Norwegian study stated themselves that while saying it's unlikely that crustaceans feel pain, that we must be aware that "more research is needed because there is a scarcity of scientific knowledge on the subject" makes me doubt even more.

And to make me feel even more guilty - a recent 2007 British study contradicted the Norwegian study by suggesting that crustaceans DO feel pain, and that pain responses are crucial to any organism's survival.  Well, not only do I feel guilty but I don't know who or what to believe anymore.

This tanner crab was quickly cut in half before cooking
Source wikipedia
In the experiment, at Queen's University, Belfast, when the antennae of prawns were rubbed with sodium hydroxide or acetic acid, the animals showed increased grooming of the afflicted area and rubbed it more against the side of the tank. Moreover, this reaction was inhibited by a local anesthetic, even though control prawns treated with only anesthetic did not show reduced activity. Robert Elwood, who headed the study, argues that sensing pain is crucial to prawn survival, because it encourages them to avoid damaging behaviors. Some scientists responded, saying the rubbing may reflect an attempt to clean the affected area.

An even more recent study in 2009, Elwood and Mirjam Appel showed that hermit crabs make motivational tradeoffs between electric shocks and the quality of the shells they inhabit. In particular, as hermit crabs are shocked more intensely, they become increasingly willing to leave their current shells for new shells, and they spend less time deciding whether to enter those new shells. Moreover, because the researchers did not offer the new shells until after the electrical stimulation had ended, the change in motivational behavior was the result of memory of the noxious event, not an immediate reflex.

"Poor Lobsters"
Pic by Flickr user pixthree
So that's it my curious readers!  I'm so sorry I can't give you a definite answer to the last question.  Deep down I want to believe that they can't fell any pain. But unless you've crawled a mile in their shoes, we'll never know the true answer.  As far as I'm concerned, anything that is 'alive' can feel some sort of pain - maybe not pain the way as we know it, but pain nevertheless. Maybe it's just the 'humane' side of us that can't distinguish scientific facts from feelings. Who knows.

Will this stop me from eating lobsters?  Sigh, probably not because I really love lobster meat. But it has surely stopped me from cooking them myself.  I can't gather up enough courage to do so anymore...


Some Other Interesting Lobster-related Facts...

Did You Know?

  • You should never eat a cooked lobster with it's tail uncurled?  This means the lobster died before it was cooked.
  • Although lobsters are considered by many to be 'scavengers of the sea', they are actually quite good for you?  It has less calories, less total fat and less cholesterol (based on 100 grams of cooked product) than lean beef; whole poached eggs; and even roasted, skinless chicken breast. Lobster is also high in amino acids; potassium and magnesium; Vitamins A, B12, B6, B3 (niacin) and B2 (riboflavin); calcium and phosphorus; iron; and zinc.
  • True albino lobsters (the white ones), don't turn red when cooked?
  • Among other things, lobsters eat crabs, sea stars, sea urchins. They are not by nature cannibalistic, except when held in crowded conditions (traps, pounds, etc.). Even with banded claws, it's still not unusual to find partially eaten animals in the live-tank when it's emptied.  As for those Lobster bands. They are not only small but strong. Lobster harvesters use a special tool that resembles a pair of pliers to open the rubber band to slip it over the lobster's claw
  • To hypnotize a lobster, stand it on its head with its claws laid out in front of it and its tail curled inward. Rub your hand up and down the carapace making sure to rub between the eyes. Eventually it may stand by itself. (Whoever thought of this must have been really starved for excitement.)
  • Lobster and lobster dishes are considered delicacies these days and can be quite expensive yet ironically, it was first considered a poor man's food since they were so in abundance.

Top Lobster pic "Boiled For Dinner" by Flickr user Brian U

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