A Compelling Case For Crustacean Compassion
Over a decade ago, the United Kingdom enacted the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which defines protections for companion animals and animals used for food. The Act includes requirements for standard welfare needs such as diet and living conditions, as well as regulations around “humane” slaughter to prevent “unnecessary suffering.” However, this Act defines an animal as “a vertebrate other than man,” which leaves out a significant group of animals: crustaceans like crabs and lobsters.
Crustaceans receive no protections from the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and there are no legal obligations to consider their welfare during storage, handling, and slaughter. Interestingly, there is a provision within the Act that says the definition of animal may be extended “so as to include invertebrates of any description … if the authorities are satisfied, on the basis of scientific evidence, that animals of the kind concerned are capable of experiencing pain and suffering.”
This is the section that an animal advocacy group called Crustacean Compassion is banking on in order to secure more rights for crustaceans in the U.K. In a recent report, the group offers compelling reasons as to why we need legislative reform that includes crustaceans in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 provision that the organization is working with specifically points out scientific evidence as being a reason for the inclusion of invertebrates under the definition of animal.
There is indeed strong evidence suggesting that crustaceans feel pain thanks to research wherein their behaviors were observed after experiencing pain. In one experiment, glass prawns groomed their antennae that were rubbed with acetic acid – a behavior that mimics vertebrates’ tendencies to groom areas that have experienced pain. Another experiment found that hermit crabs exhibited decision-making when their shells were shocked and they had to choose between evacuating the shell and staying inside.
The actions of the hermit crabs were clearly motivated by the memory of the pain and the desire to avoid it, and research like this is certainly provides scientific support that crustaceans are truly capable of experiencing pain. The European Food Safety Authority has also acknowledged that decapods can experience pain, even before much of this research was ever published.
Crustacean Compassion offers another reason for legislative reform of the Animal Welfare Act 2006: the food industry. They point out two major problems with the treatment of crustaceans used for food, with one being welfare during storage. Many supermarkets and restaurants keep live lobsters in tanks that are overcrowded, bright, and lacking shelter, and the animals are unable to perform their natural behaviors in this type of inhumane environment. Even more, in 2015, a supermarket in the U.K. was selling crabs that were alive and shrink-wrapped in plastic, an incident that widespread received media attention.
When it comes to slaughter, crustaceans continue to receive no protections from either the Animal Welfare Act 2006 or the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing legislation. Live boiling, fresh water drowning, and live dismemberment are common techniques used to prepare crustaceans for food. Crustacean Compassion advocates for more “humane” methods of slaughter and lists some solutions (such as using electric prods that render the animals unconscious).
One could say that it’s simply the U.K.’s turn, as Austria, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, Australia, and Italy have already implemented legislation that protect crustaceans. At the very least, U.K. citizens agree with Crustacean Compassion’s effort, with over 40,000 people signing an online petition, 41 animal welfare organizations expressing support, and 56 experts and public figures signing an open letter to legislators. It’s clear that Crustacean Compassion’s initiative has not just scientific evidence, but public support as well.
Crustacean Compassion’s report offers a nice collection of reasons why we should expect better treatment of invertebrate animals in addition to some alternative “humane slaughter” methods that could be employed instead. The advocacy and work of this organization are commendable. However, while improved welfare for crustaceans is important, animal advocates should wonder if not using crustaceans for food is even better. Perhaps we can view improved welfare of crustaceans as one important step in the larger plan of completely eliminating animal exploitation. Luckily, the information found in this report is useful and relevant for both objectives.