It is a dilemma faced by every discerning diner – how to reconcile the delicious taste of a freshly-cooked lobster with the barbaric manner in which the creature met its end in the chef's pot?
Now a machine designed to electrocute crabs, lobsters and other large shellfish with a single jolt of electricity could provide the solution.
The Crustastun, which was demonstrated in London yesterday at the Food Innovation Centre in Covent Garden, has been touted as the most humane way of killing edible crustaceans without prolonged suffering.
It works by delivering an electric current directly through the animal so that it dies within seconds – rather than the minutes or even hours taken by existing methods.
Seafood companies, restaurants and supermarkets are being urged to change the way they stun and kill lobsters, crabs and langoustines because current methods, which include boiling them alive or putting them in a freezer, result in a protracted death and immense suffering, according to animal welfare organisations.
Professor Douglas Neil of the University of Glasgow said that studies he has performed for the company that makes the machine demonstrate that electrocution is the quickest way of ending any signs of nervous activity in edible crustaceans – an indication of a clean death.
"It eliminates all activity that is truly from the nerves. The story becomes quite simple: we see silence in the nervous system, both the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system," Professor Neil said.
Simon Buckhaven, the inventor of the device, said that an electric current of 1.5 amps delivered directly through the shell of a lobster, crayfish or crab could kill the animal in less than two seconds. Each machine is designed to deliver electric jolts lasting either five or 10 seconds depending on the size of the crustacean to be killed. "We call it a stunner because it's rather unpleasant to call it a killing machine, but it doesn't just stun, it really kills. Our machine works so that once you press the button, you know that the crustacean will come out dead. None has recovered," Mr Buckhaven said.
A study this year by Bjorn Roth of the University of Bergen in Norway compared many different methods of killing crustaceans, such as superchilling, gradual heating, boiling, gassing and salt baths. He found that electrocution produced the quickest death.
Crustaceans are difficult to kill, partly because they do not have a single, centralised brain but a more distributed central nervous system with two swellings or "ganglia", one situated behind the eyes at the front and one at the back near the tail. Crabs can be killed by piercing both ganglia with a pointed spike, a practice that requires expertise.
Some chefs preparing langoustines cut the body in half to prepare the tail meat, but the limbs on both halves can still move. Lobsters are notoriously difficult to kill and even boiling them alive can take several minutes.