What Would Jesus Eat? The Weird World of Lobster Ethics


Is it a sin for Christians to eat lobster? Most major branches of Christianity would say yes. Old Testament prohibitions against eating lobster are usually seen as part of the Old Covenant and not a requirement for New Covenant people. But ancient dietary laws aside, modern bioethics has raised some decidedly New Testament concerns  on the issue!

The problem isn’t so much what you’re eating, but how it got onto your plate. It’s surprisingly difficult to kill a lobster is a humane way, and the most common ways to slaughter them are pretty awful if you think about it. The most common traditional way is to toss them into a pot of boiling water, which would certainly be a horrific way to kill a cow or chicken. Perhaps the large differences between crustaceans and vertebrates make people intuitively assume that it’s a less terrible thing for a lobster to experience.

However, if there is evidence that lobsters experience conscious pain, that should be a big problem for Christians. Caring for the well-being of animals in human care was certainly a priority to Jesus when he rhetorically asked, “which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11 ESV). If there are reasonable questions to be asked about the matter, Christians should be asking them.

NS comparison
Vertebrates, like humans, have a central nervous system. Lobsters sort of have their “brains” more spread out

A big part of the confusion is that Crustaceans are so anatomically different from us, so it’s hard to understand what they experience. A chicken or cow at least has a brain and nerves sort of similar to us, but not lobsters. Their nervous system is less like a brain with many wires (nerves) connected to it, and more like a long chain of small “brains” called ganglia that are connected and work together as one. So it’s pretty reasonable to question just how much thinking and experiencing a lobster can do with no central brain. After all, pain is not just the ability for a body to sense and react to pain; even bacteria can react to damaging things. The concern is the torment of consciously experiencing pain that we humans are capable of, and we reasonably think many other vertebrates can feel as well.

Scientists have done some experiments to try to understand what lobsters might experience. Other similar crustaceans like crabs (which are also boiled alive) have been documented to not just react to an electric shock, but to avoid them in the future[2]. Crustaceans can also release stress hormones into their bodies, suggesting an ongoing state of stress [2]. If a crustacean has an antenna brushed with an acid, it will try to rub the specific site over time, which is more complex behavior than would be expected for a reflex [2]. And despite the ability to avoid painful shocks, crustaceans will accept them if there is a high enough benefit, such as food[2]. All of these things seem to point towards Crustaceans having some level of ability to experience and think about their environments and themselves in a way that is more complicated than simple reflex.

In light of this evidence, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that “the largest of decapod crustaceans are complex in behavior and appear to have some degree of awareness. They have a pain system and considerable learning ability. As a consequence of this evidence, it is concluded that cyclostomes, all Cephalopoda and decapod crustaceans fall into the same category of animals as those that are at present protected” [1]. So in Europe, at least, boiling lobsters alive would officially be as unethical as boiling a live chicken.

Cooked lobster take on a red hue

Of course, that doesn’t mean we have any clear idea of what lobsters experience as reality. It’s possible that their nervous system doesn’t allow any conscious experience of suffering similar to humans. It may only seem to us observers that they could. But when in sincere doubt, it’s best to err on the safe side.

Eating lobster can certainly be ethical if they are slaughtered in an assuredly humane way, although, that could be more difficult. A common attempt at this is to jab the lobster’s “brain” in its head before boiling it[5]. This is sometimes called “spiking.” But a quick look at a lobster nervous system diagram should make clear that the “brain” in the head is probably only a part of its ability to experience things.  Realistically, getting fractional brain damage before being boiled alive is probably only slightly less awful.

What is likely much more effective, while still being cheap and easy, is to chill lobsters in the air in a freezer for several hours to put them to sleep, then cut them in half lengthwise to destroy all ganglia quickly[5]. Some people use ice in water, but the ice can melt and change the salt concentration in the water to be painful to the animals[5].

A CrustaStun with a single lobster in it

An even quicker, but much more expensive option is the CrustaStun. This device is basically a tiny electric chair for lobsters, and the makers claim that it can kill a lobster in about 5 seconds (as opposed to over a minute by boiling)[2]. But at a price of over $3000, the CrustaStun isn’t a cheap appliance. Worse, it looks like the CrustaStun website doesn’t exist anymore, so if you want one, you might have to do some pretty obscure garage sale shopping.

So by all means, most Christian groups should be able to enjoy lobster with light consciences. Just be conscious of how conscious your lobster is on the way to your plate.


Sources Cited
[1] [EFSA] European Food Safety Authority. 2005. Opinion of the Scientific Panel
on Animal Health and Welfare on a request from the Commission related to
“aspects of the biology and welfare of animals used for experimental and
other scientific purposes”. Parma (IT): European Food Safety Authority;
[accessed 2016 June 30].

[2]Elwood RW. 2012. Evidence for pain in decapod crustaceans. Animal Welfare
21(2): 23-27.

[3]Koerner BI. 2006 Jun 25. How a lobster leaves the building. The New York
Times. [accessed 2016 June 30]. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06

[4]Lobster Council of Canada. [date unknown]. Halifax (NS): The Lobster Council
of Canada. How to cook; [date unknown; accessed 2016 June 30].

[5]Yue, Stephanie. 2008. An HSUS Report: The Welfare of Crustaceans at
Slaughter. HSUS Reports: Farm Industry Impacts on Animals. Paper 4.

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