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Seafood FAQ: Science, not sentiment, is key to live-lobster sales

Whole Foods' decision to stop selling live lobsters is sure to spawn consumer inquiries

Science says lobsters' primitive nervous systems keep
    them from processing pain lucky for this guy! - Photo by John Barkley
By Steven Hedlund
August 01, 2006

American lobsters have a way of tugging at our heartstrings. Remember Bubba, the 22-pound behemoth that was spared by a Pittsburgh seafood dealer and donated to the local aquarium in 2005? Or Hercules, the 14-pounder that Port Angeles, Wash., schoolchildren rescued from a local supermarket and flew home to Maine in 2004?

What about the feisty lobsters a squeamish Woody Allen and Diane Keaton chased around their kitchen in the 1977 film "Annie Hall?"

Once again, lobsters are in the limelight. In June, Whole Foods Market, the nation's largest natural-foods retailer, stopped selling live lobsters because it says they're not handled in a manner that meets the company's quality-of-life standards for animals.

From the New York Times to KBCI-TV in Boise, Idaho, media outlets nationwide jumped on the story, which is sure to prompt questions from consumers concerned about the humane treatment of lobsters.


Q. Do lobsters feel pain?

Lobsters have a primitive nervous system, similar to that of a cricket or grasshopper.

"Basically, lobsters have no brain," says Robert Bayer, Ph.D., executive director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. "They don't have the physiological software to process pain."

Bayer points to a February 2005 study conducted by a University of Oslo scientist and funded by the Norwegian government that found lobsters and other decapod crustaceans "have some capacity of learning, but it is unlikely they can feel pain."

The study was aimed at determining if invertebrates should be subject to Norway's animal-welfare laws.

"I'm not aware of any bona fide studies that suggest lobsters feel pain," says Bayer.

The fact that lobsters can regenerate claws, walking legs and antennae is indicative of a primitive nervous system. Lobsters are capable of reflux amputation, the ability to discard a limb as a means of protection and escape from predators such as cod, flounder and wolffish.

Another way to look at it is that lobsters have only about 100,000 neurons, or nerve cells, while vertebrates such as humans have 1 billion neurons.


Q. Why do lobsters twitch and hiss when cooked alive?

Lobsters are capable of reacting to threatening stimuli. That's why lobsters twitch when dropped into a pot of boiling water. It's simply an escape mechanism.

According to the Lobster In­stitute, chilling or icing lobsters before cooking them minimizes the duration of twitching. Steaming, slow heating in salt water from room temperature and hypnotizing (holding and rubbing a lobster's head) can increase the duration of twitching.

The "hissing" noise that often emanates from a cooking lobster is simply air escaping from the animal's body cavity as it expands from the heat.


Q. Is it uncomfortable for lobsters to live in a tank?

Lobsters quickly become acclimated to crowded conditions and fluctuating water temperatures, which occur in the wild.

According to the Lobster In­stitute, tanks are usually filled with 2 gallons of water per 1 pound of lobster. Water temperatures are kept at 40 to 45 degrees F, a level at which lobsters are less active and require less oxygen; cannibalism and the threat of disease are reduced.

Also, lobsters' sense of smell dulls in the tank, suppressing their appetite; lobsters "smell" their food using four small antennae on the front of their head and tiny sensing hairs that cover their body.

As water temperatures rise, "their metabolism picks up and they get more aggressive," says Steve Aldrich, president of Marine Biotech, a Beverly, Mass., holding-systems integrator for live aquatic animals.

Aldrich estimates that, on average, only 1 to 2 percent of lobsters die in the tank, if the tank is maintained properly and the lobsters are handled carefully throughout the supply chain and are not left out of water too long.

"It's important to remember that it's in the best interest of lobstermen to keep their catch healthy and alive for delivery," says Kristen Millar, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Counc il.


Q. Is Whole Foods alone 
in making the sale of live lobsters an ethical issue?

Wild Oats Markets, the nation's No. 2 natural-foods retailer, has never sold live lobster because it says it's inhumane. Some conventional retailers, including Safeway, one of the nation's biggest, are phasing out their live-lobster tanks.

But most cite lagging sales, not the ethical implications of marketing a live animal, as the cause.

Before making a decision, some Whole Foods stores experimented with sophisticated tanks. The retailer tried to mimic lobsters' natural habitat by installing pipes, or "condos," in tanks for the creatures to hide in.

About 11 percent of Americans don't eat lobster because they're morally opposed to cooking an animal alive, says Millar, citing a 2005 consumer survey administered by the MLPC.

Millar says 60 percent of Amer­icans are "crazy" about eating lobster if it's convenient; i.e., they order it at a restaurant or buy extracted meat at a supermarket. Three-quarters of Maine's lobster haul is sold at foodservice, while the remaining 25 percent is sold at retail, she notes.

However, 15 percent of Amer­icans have no qualms about killing and cooking a live lobster themselves. It's no surprise that most of these people, who Millar classifies as "traditionalists," live in the Northeast.


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