Chill it, then split or spike it - the humane way to kill a lobster

14 February 2000

The appropriate way to humanely kill a rock lobster is to chill it, then kill it by either splitting or spiking it.

Chefs using this method can be sure that they are killing the lobsters humanely, whilst preparing good quality lobster meat according to a recent study by MIRINZ Food Technology and Research.

It’s important because under the new Animal Welfare Act, which commenced on the 1 January 2000, lobsters are classified as animals, and accordingly, it is now an offence to kill a lobster inhumanely.

In New Zealand any animal killed for meat consumption must be killed humanely. This means the animal must not be stressed when being handled, should be held at the place of slaughter for only a short time under appropriate conditions, and the killing method must not cause pain or distress prior to death. It applies to animals killed in restaurants, like lobsters.

Seafood shops and restaurants have recently come under growing scrutiny concerning their methods for killing rock lobsters. One method, tailing (where the body is severed between the fore half and abdomen with a knife) received national media coverage and was condemned by the RNZSPCA as inhumane.

The report’s writers, Neville Gregory, MIRINZ scientist and member of the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) and Dr Tim Lowe found eight common procedures were being used in New Zealand seafood restaurants to kill lobsters, usually with two or more methods combined.

These were chilling, drowning, spiking, chest spike, splitting, and tailing, freezing, and boiling (definitions listed below).

"Not many lobsters are killed by freezing or boiling in New Zealand restaurants because both methods affect the quality of the meat," says Dr Gregory, "Boiling lobsters alive tends to make the meat chewy, and freezing makes the meat lose its fresh appearance. Boiling also causes the lobster to shed its legs making it unsuitable as a garnish for serving lobster meals," he said.

The research found that lobsters should be chilled before being killed.

"It’s the simplest way to make them insensible without damaging the edible parts of the body. Being cold blooded, chilling the lobster helps reduce nerve function and metabolic activity. To chill, place the lobster in salt water or a refrigerator set at two to four degrees. When it is fully chilled, the lobster will stop moving and no longer responds to being handled," Dr Gregory said. Chilling at a temperature above four degrees does not guarantee complete insensibility, but a lobster can be kept alive at this temperature for up to two days.

Dr Gregory says placing a lobster in unsalted tap water causes severe osmotic stress leading to drowning. Drowning can cause the lobster meat to turn soft due to it retaining water as part of the osmotic affect. Regardless of water temperature, drowning is an inappropriate killing method for lobsters.

The report recommends chilling a lobster before splitting it along its length where it has two chains of nerve ganglia, with interconnecting nerves along its body under the shell. Chilling beforehand prevents the lobster from moving and mistakes during splitting occurring, otherwise the manoeuvre requires skill to ensure a humane kill in an unchilled animal. A lobster should also be well chilled before head spiking.

The report says that tailing and chest spiking do not cause immediate unconsciousness in unchilled lobsters.

For further information concerning the research findings contact: Dr Neville Gregory, Animal Welfare and Stress section, MIRENZ, Phone: 07 838 5321.

For Animal Welfare Act information contact Kate Horrey, Animal Welfare Policy Adviser, Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, Phone: 04 474 4100.

Common methods for killing lobsters in New Zealand seafood restaurants:

Chilling – animals are cooled in a cold room, fridge or slurry ice

Drowning – animals are placed in tap water

Head spiking – animals are spiked through the chest wall from the underside

Splitting – the body is split along its length with a knife

Tailing – the body is severed between the fore half (cephalothorax) and abdomen with a knife

Freezing – animals are frozen using a kitchen freezer

Boiling – animals are dropped into boiling water

Contact MPI

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