Is It Cruel to Cook Shellfish and Crustaceans Alive?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The short answer to this question is that yes, it is cruel to cook shellfish and crustaceans alive, because although they have less extensive nervous systems than humans do, they still feel pain. This has been a subject of vigorous debate, as the animal rights movement feels that cooking shellfish alive is inhumane, and several scientific studies on the topic have come up with inconclusive results. Fortunately, there are ways to humanely cook crustaceans and, to some extent, shellfish as well, for consumers who would prefer more humanely killed seafood. Consumers concerned about cruelty to food animals may also want to consider purchasing free farmed, humanely raised meat and animal products.

Frequently, shellfish is purchased alive so it is sure to be fresh.
Frequently, shellfish is purchased alive so it is sure to be fresh.

Many consumers ask why they are encouraged to purchase shellfish while it is alive in the first place, as all seafood buying guides remind consumers to buy live shellfish and crustaceans, not dead ones. The reason for this is that dead shellfish tends to spoil very rapidly, and if you do not know how long it has been dead, it is hard to know whether or not it is safe to eat. For this reason, consumers worried about food poisoning should purchase shellfish while it is still alive, and make sure that it is alive shortly before cooking. Consumers should also store shellfish with care; do not leave shellfish wrapped up in butcher paper, because this does not allow body fluids to drain. To store shellfish safely, use a slotted drainage container over a tray to catch the water, and rinse them occasionally.

Some believe it is cruel to cook shellfish and crustaceans alive.
Some believe it is cruel to cook shellfish and crustaceans alive.

As anyone who has cooked crustaceans knows, they clearly feel what is happening to them as they are cooked, because they tend to struggle when being placed into a pot and for several seconds afterwards. They may also continue to twitch and appear to move for several seconds after death due to residual nervous system signals. Shellfish may not exhibit noticeable signs of distress, but they probably feel some pain. You can reduce the suffering of shellfish during cooking by freezing them first for approximately 15 minutes, and remember to cook shellfish in a tray above the water, not submerged in it.

If you want to cook crustaceans humanely, start by freezing them for around 15 minutes. This will not kill them, but it will numb their nervous systems, much like shocking cows before slaughter is supposed to do. Next, place the crustacean back down on a cutting board. Because it is frozen, it will move sluggishly, making the next part of this operation safer and more accurate. Keep one hand on the tail, and use the other to position a heavy chef's knife slightly above the middle of the lobster's torso, with the blade facing towards the head. Use a single sharp movement to chop the lobster in half from mid-torso to head, killing it instantly, and then throw it into a pot of salt water for cooking.

A chef's knife can be used to kill live seafood humanely.
A chef's knife can be used to kill live seafood humanely.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Actually, lots of animals kill other animals humanely, by going for their throat first to suffocate them.


Where is the evidence that putting them in the freezer makes it less inhumane? I'm not trolling, I eat them. I just want to get some stuff clear. This article takes a definite position when there really isn't one so I'm wondering if this is also just opinion. I'm not convinced they do feel actual pain as we understand it but I'm not convinced they don't either. Mainly because of the Belfast study (I think) where analgesics reduced their soothe behavior. But it is still far from really answering the question. In the mean time, I'd like to be as humane as I can. I'm more worried about the circumstances leading up to their death. They are treated horribly in those cramped cages. If you're gonna lop a lobster's head off, why stick it in the freezer? It's a pretty quick way to go. We don't even know if the freezer is terribly unpleasant. Just off it without the freezer. I've only ever heard the freezer suggestion as a way to make them less distressed for boiling.


There are some biological reasons why some crustaceans and shellfish must be alive when dispatched for cooking. The way I see it, there are animals out there that qualify as crops, mostly because there are millions of them and we run the food chain.

These creatures deserve to be dispatched as humanely as possible, but the bottom line is that if someone orders lobster at a seafood restaurant, something bad is going to happen in a holding tank soon. This is non-negotiable. Most of us probably don't really want to know how other crop animals are processed, either.


The question of shellfish is highly debatable because they do not have a central nervous system -- arguably what would be needed to feel pain.

For crustaceans, it is much more likely, though. Of course, other animals wouldn't think about a painless way to kill us, but that is because their thinking process is limited. A cost of the intelligence that got us out of the stone age is the necessity to consider the moral implications of our actions.


I too feel that this is inhumane, only if they can feel it. I have no problem with eating meat, as it's our way of staying alive, and we're far more important, but forcing pain on something just to eat a delicacy is just mean.

Take for instance that comment about cats and dogs boiled alive; the very thought of that crushes your heart. Not saying shellfish are are feeling as those animals, and we honestly need some conclusive evidence it causes them any pain.


Anyone who doesn't see anything wrong with causing pain to any living thing has issues. And if an animal was going to eat me, it's because I presented myself to it! We take these creatures out of their habitat to eat them - they have no choice in the matter. Some people are just so ignorant and selfish.


What the hell? It's an animal. Not just any animal, but one you are about to eat. While all these weird animal lovers are complaining, people all over the world are going to continue to eat animals, all while laughing at you because you are making such a huge freakin' deal about it. So quit watching cartoons that personify animals as emotional equals and step back into reality. Life is cruel. Get used to it.


anon51703: I was horrified to read your comments. Please don't call yourself an animal lover. It's very clear you are a human lover and that's about it. Have you ever thought to just forgo lobster? I'm sure there are other things you enjoy that don't have the ethical implications that cooking a creature live in boiling water has. Can't humans just decided to do without this one thing?

As for the statement "after a while it doesn't hurt you to cook them live anymore.." I nearly dropped my spoon- who cares if it hurts you?


To anon67843, if an animal were to eat you, it probably wouldn't think of a humane way to kill you. But does that mean you should act in a similar manner? Do you sniff other people's private areas when you first meet them because dogs do?


Lobsters and crabs take about six minutes to die in the most unbearable agony you could imagine. You would not do this to your pet so why would you do this to another creature. Of course, in some oriental country, they boil cats and dogs to death. I really don't know how anyone can be that cruel.


As a cook myself I cannot cook a dead crustacean, but I never had a problem cooking them alive. If an animal was going to eat me, it would not think of an humane way to kill me first. it would just dig in.


Since I love to cook and I happen to enjoy crustaceans and other shellfish, I have no issue cooking them live without freezing them. I am an animal lover and will fight for the rights of animals, but if you want to become a chef, then the food needs to be prepared fresh. Meaning the shellfish need to be alive before cooking them. You get used to it after a while and it doesn't hurt you to cook them live anymore.


I do love shellfish, but I have to admit: the prospect of cooking them live, without freezing them or some other such method, makes me uncomfortable.

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