« August 2006 Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.