A leading crustacean expert has said there is “no rationale” behind UK laws that allow lobsters to be boiled alive.
Professor Emeritus Robert Elwood’s made the comments after Switzerland became the first country to ban the common cooking practice as part of new reforms to the country’s animal welfare laws.
The scientist, who has carried out extensive research on how decapod crustaceans experience pain, has welcomed a move he said was “sensible” and suggested others countries followed suit.
He said: “Animals that show responses consistent with pain are typically given some protection, especially at slaughter. However, crustaceans do not receive that protection in the UK. Even though the evidence is similar for different groups of animals they are treated very differently.
“I see no rationale for this different treatment in the UK and it is good to see the Swiss making sensible decisions based on evidence. I suspect that other countries will follow the available evidence.”
The government act, which takes effect in March in Switzerland, means crustaceans must be stunned before they are killed. The new regulations also prohibit the transportation of live lobsters on ice or in ice water.
Boiling lobsters alive has been a common method of killing them for many years, but lately there has been growing debate about whether crustaceans feel pain.
It was previously suggested that lobsters’ responses were just reflexes and that they were incapable of feeling pain – but recent research suggests otherwise.
Prof Elwood, who is based at Queen’s University Belfast, said his experiments showed decapod crustaceans “responses to noxious stimuli are much more than mere reflex”. “Decapods learn to avoid a place in which they receive electric shock remarkably quickly,” he said.
“They will engage in prolonged rubbing of specific body areas that are subject to chemical or electrical stimuli, indicating an awareness. They will give up valuable resources to get away from shock.
“They show hormonal changes after shock that are analogous to mammalian stress responses. All these responses are consistent with the idea of pain.”
Switzerland’s reforms come after a court in Italy ruled that lobsters cannot be kept on ice before being killed as this causes them suffering that could not be justified.
In the UK, more than 33,900 people have signed a petition calling on the government to include decapod crustaceans such crabs, lobsters, prawns, crayfish and shrimp in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This would offer them greater protection from pain and suffering and would push for humane slaughter methods as with other vertebrate animals.
The petition to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “An EU panel has stated that many of the ways in which these animals are currently slaughtered are inhumane. They are often simply torn apart or boiled alive.
“It is estimated that a brown crab boiled alive may remain conscious for up to three minutes, something which would be considered completely unacceptable in a vertebrate animal like a pig or chicken.” The petition added: “Given the latest scientific evidence we believe this is unacceptable.”
More humane methods include electrically stunning lobsters before they are killed so they do not feel pain.
Professor Elwood added: “We should aim for a quick death at slaughter. That does not occur with boiling. Some advocate steaming lobsters by placing them in a small amount of hot water. Here, death will be even slower than by boiling.”
The UK Government has published a draft bill which recognises animals as sentient beings, including wild animals.
Mr Gove pledged to toughen punishments for animal abusers and enshrine in law the principle that animals can “feel pain and suffering”. He also put forward proposals to make CCTV compulsory in slaughterhouses.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs said minister George Eustice had previously stated the issue of crustaceans was one “the Government is considering”.
“We are committed to the very highest standards of animal welfare,” he said. “As the Prime Minister has set out, we will make the United Kingdom a world leader in the care and protection of animals as we leave the EU.”