For the squeamish among us, plopping a live lobster into a vat of boiling water always has had an air of cruelty behind it. Between the poor ugly buggers thrashing around in the pot and the strange sounds they make once they're in there, boiling a live lobster can seem positively barbaric. Even as the meal on the other side seems positively delicious.
Now, the Swiss Federal Council has officially deemed the process inhumane and unnecessary. By March 1, 2018, the government has ordained Swiss chefs will have to "stun" the crustaceans first before they drop them into the boiling hereafter. “Live crustaceans, including the lobster, may no longer be transported on ice or in ice water. Aquatic species must always be kept in their natural environment. Crustaceans must now be stunned before they are killed,” according to the new Swiss law.
The decision, following a like-minded move in Italy, raises an age-old debate on whether lobsters feel pain at all. There is some science on both sides of the issue.
On one side are scientists like professor Robert Elwood, an animal behaviorist at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He conducted a study that found, despite a rudimentary nervous system that lacks a sophisticated brain, lobsters have feelings, insofar that they know what hurts and try to avoid it.
"I don't know what goes on in a [crustacean'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," Elwood told the BBC in 2013.
On the other are a bunch of scientists who say that those reactions — the thrashing about in boiling water, for example — are programmed, not a brain-centered reaction to pain, similar to how a tap to your knee elicits a kick. Lobsters react, these scientists say, but they lack the necessary brainpower to process pain.
"I find it really quite remarkable that people attribute to these animals humanlike responses when they simply don't have the hardware for it," Joseph Ayers, a professor of marine and environmental sciences, told The New York Times.
Expectedly, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) cheer the Swiss decision (which also says live lobsters can't be shipped on ice), while outfits like the University of Maine's Lobster Institute, in effect, dismiss it. "The nervous system of a lobster is very simple — not unlike that of an insect. Neither insects nor lobsters have brains," the Lobster Institute says on its website. "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 land-locked Swiss imported less than a $500,000 worth of live lobsters from the U.S. in 2016, according to The Washington Post, so the country's boiling ban won't have much of an effect on how lobsters are cooked worldwide.
Still, it's more fodder for that age-old debate, and it'll keep seafood lovers everywhere wondering whether all that pain is really in the lobsters' brains or just ours.