Image by Claude Potts

Crabs, Lobsters and UK Animal Welfare Law


Animal welfare laws still do not apply to decapod crustaceans in the UK, despite compelling evidence that they are sentient and can feel pain. This means that many of the ways of storing, handling and slaughtering crabs, lobsters, crayfish and prawns, for example in 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  one of our team published a preliminary study into lobster welfare in the journal Animal Sentience. She 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 taken a common-sense approach to prevent unnecessary suffering. 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 the 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 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 treatment. This means that even where businesses want to do the right thing, it's not easy to find guidance.


That's why we've provided some on our Guide to Humane Treatment page. Why not share with your local restaurant or supermarket?


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