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Special Feature: Killing them softly

If crustaceans indeed feel pain, will sales of live crabs and lobsters suffer?

This crab’s behavior changed when zapped — a sign it may feel pain. - Photo courtesy of Queen’s University
By Melissa Wood
March 01, 2013

Placed onto the scale, the lobster gently twitched an antenna. Its shell maintained familiar ocean hues of mottled green and brown. But despite these signs of life, it was, assuredly, quite dead. 

The lobster had been ordered from the seafood counter at Whole Foods Market in Portland, Maine, which is the only store in the nationwide chain that sells live lobsters. This is because Portland is located close enough to the ports where lobsters are unloaded so Whole Foods can guarantee its live lobsters are handled with care during shipping and processing. 

For the final step of its delicate care of live lobsters, the retailer will also kill a shellfish “humanely” by quickly electrocuting it in a device in the back room. 

That Whole Foods lobster supposedly didn’t suffer. But do they ever? The debate on whether lobsters and other crustaceans can feel pain — and whether the truth of the matter has any implications for the industry that buys, handles and cooks them — was revived after a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in mid-January concluded that, yes, they do indeed feel pain.

The researchers say changes in crab behavior to small electrical shocks are proof. Prof. Robert Elwood and Barry Magee of Queen’s University School of Biological Studies in Belfast, Ireland, introduced 90 shore crabs individually to a tank with two dark shelters. When the crabs ran to one of the shelters some were exposed to an electric shock. When introduced to the tank a second time, most returned to the shelter they had chosen the first time. Those shocked the first time were shocked again. But in the third round, the responses of the shocked crabs changed. 

“When introduced to the tank for the third time, however, the vast majority of shocked crabs now went to the alternative safe shelter. Those not shocked continued to use their preferred shelter,” said Elwood in a university release. “Having experienced two rounds of shocks, the crabs learned to avoid the shelter where they received the shock. They were willing to give up their hideaway in order to avoid the source of their probable pain.”

Though Elwood concedes it is impossible to prove an animal feels pain, this type of response — a change in behavior — is consistent with the “idea of pain” based on various criteria. 

Elwood says the conclusion should lead to a greater focus on how crabs, prawns, lobsters and other crustaceans are treated within the food industry. 

“Billions of crustaceans are caught or reared in aquaculture for the food industry,” he said. “In contrast to mammals, crustaceans are given little or no protection as the presumption is that they cannot experience pain. Our research suggests otherwise. More consideration of the treatment of these animals is needed as a potentially very large problem is being ignored.”

The treatment of crustaceans was a hot discussion topic in 2006 when Whole Foods announced it would no longer carry live lobsters in its stores. 

Then and now, those in the lobster industry point to research that shows the opposite of the Queen’s University study. A February 2005 study by a University of Oslo scientist concluded that lobsters and other decapod crustaceans “have some capacity of learning, but it is unlikely they can feel pain.” 

“There’s been a lot of research done on this that shows lobsters have a very simple nervous system. It’s comparable to a bug or insect. It’s very unlikely to feel pain,” says Marianne LaCroix, acting executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council in Portland, Maine.

Whether you believe crustaceans feel pain or not, the Queen’s University findings could have implications for the industry, points out Simon Buckhaven of Bedfordshire, England. He invented the Crustastun, a device that electrocutes the animals in half a second. Lobsters and crayfish typically die in about five seconds while crabs are dead in 10 seconds. The Crustastun is available in a single-stunner size for restaurants and retailers and batch size for processors.  

“There’s more stress from being handled than there is from being Crustastunned,” says Buckhaven. He also says that the meat tastes better because the animals don’t tense up from stress.

Buckhaven points out that exporters of live crustaceans from North America may not find their product is welcome in European countries with strict animal welfare laws. 

“PETA bought two machines and they want to promote it,” he says. “Every animal welfare organization in the world is on board.” 

Buckhaven says he’s seen interest from the European market, particularly Austria, Belgium and Switzerland, but their forays into the United States have not had much success except at the Portland Whole Foods Market, which Buckhaven says they gave a prototype to that still appears to be in use.

He introduced the Crustastun to America at both the National Restaurant Association Show and International Boston Seafood Show, and tried to get a high-profile chef to adopt it here. “But we just couldn’t get it,” Buckhaven says.

He says consumer awareness is the key to driving demand for it in the United States. The company is also hoping to make the device more accessible by developing a larger machine for high-volume chain restaurants like Red Lobster and a low-cost plastic version for home use. 

But the latest findings on crab pain from Queen’s University, which were widely publicized in the United States, seemed to have little fallout. The people who care generally aren’t the ones eating seafood in the first place, says LaCroix. 

On the West Coast, where Dungeness crab season means live crabs available, the sentiment was the same. 

Asked whether customers inquire about the treatment of the live crabs, Tryan Hartill, retail manager for Northwest Wild Products in Astoria, Ore., says, “Never. We’ve sold crab for 10 years and I’ve been working here for three years, and I’ve never heard anybody say anything. They see how they are in the tank.”

Hartill says every once in a while someone might ask if they squeal when cooked, but no one has ever asked how they’re treated in the tanks.

The issue has come up before. “I’m an old fart so I have a long memory. Years ago [in San Francisco] they wanted the people to kill the crabs before they cook them by either freezing them or something else,” remembers Daniel Strazzullo, 66, president of All Shores Seafood Brokerage and Peninsula Seafood Market in San Bruno, Calif. The effort caused a “huge uproar on Fishermen’s Wharf” and was defeated. 

Strazzullo, whose father owned a crab shack at the waterfront tourist spot, says selling live crabs helps keep the retail portion of his business afloat. A crab pot in the front of the store helps distinguish it from supermarket chains.

Strazzullo says if a customer were to ask about the treatment of the crabs, he’d tell that customer what his father told him: That everything is alive at some point — plants, animals and even dirt — so where do you draw the line?

“We live in a world where everything we eat is alive,” he says. 

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com

 

March 2013 - SeaFood Business

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