Crabs, Lobsters and UK Animal Welfare Law
Animal welfare laws still do not apply to decapod crustaceans in the UK, despite new and compelling evidence that they are sentient and feel pain. This means that many of the ways of storing, handling and slaughtering crabs, lobsters, crayfish and prawns for the food industry may be causing intense suffering. Yet humane methods would be relatively straightforward to implement, as many examples of good practice show.
In November 2017 we published a preliminary study into lobster welfare in Animal Sentience Journal. We found that lobsters were frequently overcrowded, denied shelter, and subjected to unsuitably bright light. You can read it here.
Other countries including New Zealand (1), Austria, Norway (2) and Switzerland (3) include decapod crustaceans in their animal welfare legislation in the food preparation and restaurant trade. Their decisions are based on scientific evidence of their ability to feel pain and suffer, dating as far back as the 1990s; and they have largely taken a common sense approach to prevent unnecessary suffering where doubt still exists. For example:
the sale of live creatures to the general public is prohibited
chefs or other slaughterers must have a certificate of competence and prevent unnecessary suffering
decapods must be appropriately housed, in good quality water
they must be cared for in a way which prevents injuries and disease
their conditions must allow for ‘species-specific behaviour’
Yet in the UK, decapods are not classed as 'animals' under most legal definitions of the term. For example, the Animal Welfare Act of 2006 (England and Wales), Scotland's Animal Health and Welfare Act (2006) and Northern Ireland's Welfare of Animals Act (2006) do not currently apply to catching, trapping, handling or housing of decapods. They can commonly be seen crammed together in barren restaurant tanks, awaiting slaughter. Subjected to noise, bright lighting, and with their claws bound, these naturally solitary animals may suffer from stress, injury, overheating and dehydration.
In November 2015, a Korean supermarket in Surrey was found to be selling live crabs pre-packaged in clingfilm; slowly suffocating and completely immobilised. The RSPCA were powerless to take legal action as the animals weren't covered by the Animal Welfare Act. In addition, crabs and lobsters may be posted live from fishmongers to consumers along with books and electronics, risking injury, slow suffocation and many days in transit if the recipient is not at home. Once delivered, they are completely at the mercy of the consumer's knowledge and compassion. They can store and kill them however they wish.
Until decapod crustaceans are included under the definition of 'animal' in welfare legislation, the UK government is not obliged to draw up guidelines for their humane slaughter. This means that even where restaurants and supermarkets want to do the right thing, it's not easy to find guidance. That's why we've provided some below. Why not share with your local restaurant or supermarket?
Inhumane Slaughter Methods
All of the following methods have been described as inhumane by the EU's Animal Health and Welfare Scientific (AHAW) Panel (4):
Live boiling. During this process lobsters and crabs thrash, try to escape, and shed their limbs, known to be a sign of stress. Roth and Øines (2010:294) estimate that an edible crab boiled alive will be able to sense heat for at least three minutes (5).
Chilling in the freezer/ice slurry before live boiling. There is no evidence to suggest that this induces anaesthesia rather than just paralysis (6). Roth and Øines find that chilling is often slow and ineffective (5). Keeping live lobsters on ice has been banned in Switzerland and Italy.
Live carving / dismemberment. Whilst some uses of the knife may be more humane than others (see the RSPCA's guide), it is vital that the correct nerve chains are severed quickly. In particular, lobsters must be severed lengthways all the way down the body. All too often this is not the case, with chefs claiming splitting the head of a chilled lobster kills it instantly. This method is highly likely to cause pain - even if the creatures have been previously chilled to a torpor (4).
Humane Slaughter Methods
At present, there are no UK government or UK charity guidelines on the most humane method of slaughtering decapod crustaceans. They must first be recognised as sentient, pain-feeling creatures and included in the definition of 'animal' before the government will set them.
However, international guidelines exist and are largely in agreement. The most comprehensive advice is provided in this guide by RSPCA Australia, who recommend electrical stunning/slaughter (using special equipment) as the quickest and most humane method. Devices such as the Crustastun are available for restaurants and the Stansas for large-scale processors (10). For the scientific evidence on electrical stunning machines, see note below (11).
Alternatively, the next best method is appropriate chilling for the species (either in air or water), followed by the mechanical destruction of the brain with a sharp knife by professionals trained in the unique biology of each species. The methods for crabs and lobsters are different. This is far from ideal as it may take up to 10 seconds to kill a lobster this way, far in excess of what is required by law for vertebrate animals.
There are many examples of good practice. Tesco's own brand UK brown crab and lobster is stunned prior to slaughter. Waitrose stun their UK Brown Crabs and Lobsters. Some restaurants such as Locanda Locatelli and Quo Vadis have committed to using the Crustastun. But with no legal guidelines, there is no obligation for the food industry to treat crabs, lobsters and crayfish humanely, either in storage or during slaughter.
The government and the food industry think that the British public don't care about crustaceans. Will you prove them wrong?
1. Animal Welfare Act (1999), pdf, accessed 29-4-16
2. Norwegian Animal Welfare Act (2011) pdf, accessed 29-4-16
3. Animal Welfare Ordinance (2008) pdf, accessed 29-4-16
4. The EFSA Journal (2005) 292, 1-46 – Opinion on the “Aspects of the biology andwelfare of animals used for experimental and other scientific purposes”. Accessed at on 27 December 2013.
5. Roth, B. and Øines, S., 2010. Stunning and killing of edible crabs (Cancer pagurus), Animal Welfare, Volume 19, Number 3, August 2010 , pp. 287-294(8). Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.
6. Fishcount (2014) "Welfare during killing of crabs, lobsters and crayfish" webpage, accessed 8-3-16
7. Neil, D. and Thompson, J., 2012. "The stress induced by the Crustastun™ process in two commercially important decapod crustaceans: the edible brown Cancer pagurus and the European lobster Homarus gammarus".Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the School of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow. Accessed at on 16 November 2013.
8. Neil, D., 2012. The effect of the Crustastun™ on nerve activity in crabs and lobsters. Scientific report. Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the School of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow. Accessed at on 16 November 2013.
9. Neil, D., 2012. The effect of the Crustastun™ on nerve activity in two commercially important decapod crustaceans: the edible brown Cancer pagurus and the European lobster Homarus gammarus. Scientific report. Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the School of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow. Accessed at on 16 November 2013.
10. Electrical stunning of edible crabs, report no: 18/2013, Nofima, ISBN 978-82-8296-0279-3 (pdf).
11. Research has shown that electrical stunning is currently the most efficient stunning method for edible crabs (Roth & Øines, 2010) and for lobsters and crayfish (Fregin and Bickmeyer, 2016). With sufficient electrical current, crabs can be rendered unconscious within 1 second (Roth., & Øines, 2010). This meets legal demands from the Council Regulation (EC) for stunning mammals, poultry and fish. It is important to remember that electrical stunning usually does not kill, so it is necessary for stunning to be swiftly followed by killing. It should be noted that this is an area of research which is currently receiving significant focus and funding, so the evidence base is still developing. Some of the scientific studies that have investigated the efficacy of electrical stunning in rendering decapod crustaceans unconscious include Fregin, T., & Bickmeyer, U. (2016). Electrophysiological investigation of different methods of anesthesia in lobster and crayfish. PloS one, 11(9), e0162894; Roth, B., & Grimsbø, E. (2013). Electrical Stunning of Edible Crabs. , accessed 9-10-18; Weineck, K., Ray, AJ., Fleckenstein, LJ., Medley, M., Dzubuk, N., Piana, E., Cooper, RL., (2018). Physiological Changes as a Measure of Crustacean Welfare under Different Standardized Stunning Techniques: Cooling and Electroshock. , accessed 9-10-18; Albalat, A., Gornik, S., Theethakaew, C., & Neil, D. (2008). Evaluation of the quality of Langoustines after being killed by the Crustastun. University of Glasgow, , accessed 9-10-18