A controversial animals-rights group is targeting a Maine lobster processor for what it considers inhumane slaughtering methods, although it’s unclear whether the methods are outside the industry’s standards.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals plans to release video footage Tuesday that it says was taken in a processing plant in Maine, the state that’s synonymous with lobster.
The organization, which has conducted and publicized hidden-camera investigations into factory farming of chickens and dairy cows, among other animals, called the methods shown in the video cruel. It said it plans to file a complaint with local authorities Tuesday alleging that the lobster processing plant violates Maine’s animal cruelty statute.
However, there are no state or federal laws that govern how a lobster should be killed during processing, and it has not been established whether crustaceans feel pain.
The video, captured with a hidden camera by a PETA investigator who worked at the plant briefly, shows an unidentified worker grabbing a squirming lobster.
He rips off one claw, then another. He then takes the body and drives it against a sharp stake mounted to a machine, which separates the shell surrounding the head and body. The lobster twitches after its limbs are taken off.
“Are they still alive when they go through there?” the camera operator asks.
“Oh yeah,” the worker replies.
Later in the video, piles of lobsters wriggle in a giant crate — presumably alive — although their claws, legs and shells have been removed.
Although PETA has told the Portland Press Herald where it was shot, the video does not identify the facility. The Press Herald is not identifying it because the newspaper could not independently verify the location on Monday. PETA said it will publicly identify the processor on Tuesday.
The video was edited for brevity and the processor was not identified in the video because PETA felt it was more important to show what was happening to the lobsters than where it was happening, said Dan Paden, an evidence analysis manager with PETA.
It’s not clear whether the practice is unusual for the industry.
Matt McAleney, general manager of New Meadows Lobster in Portland, a distributor that used to process lobsters, did not see the video but said after the method was described to him that it sounded standard for most of the industry.
Paden said his organization has never seen such video, clearly showing “intentional mutilation” of an animal, which will be a violation of Maine’s animal cruelty laws if crustaceans can be classified as animals.
PETA has a history of activism and claims more than two million members. Among its biggest causes is opposing the use of animal furs for fashion.
PROCESSING ‘KILLS’ UNREGULATED
There appear to be no state or federal laws governing how lobsters should be processed.
Processing plants in Maine must be licensed through the Department of Marine Resources, and state officials can inspect them at any time. But Jeff Nichols, a department spokesman, said nothing in state law or regulations specifies a method of processing.
“Rather, Marine Resources statute and regulation apply to the parts of the lobster processed, the facility in which they are processed, inspections to ensure compliance with conservation laws, containers and labeling and record-keeping,” he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees all food processing facilities but has no regulations for how lobsters should be treated during processing.
Many lobster processors declined to talk about their operations when contacted Monday by the Press Herald. Others did not return calls for comment.
A representative for the Lobster Council of Canada said that although there are many rules and regulations for processors, nothing restricts how a lobster can be killed in Canada.
SLAUGHTERING ALTERNATIVES EXIST
There are lobster processing methods that PETA considers humane.
Paden said PETA repeatedly approached the processing company in the video to talk about “alternative slaughtering methods,” before deciding to go public with the video. “They were unresponsive,” he said.
One method the group finds acceptable is to stun the lobsters, which kills any nerves and any ability to feel pain. A company called CrustaStun, based in the United Kingdom, makes commercial devices for use in processing facilities.
Several organizations, including the Humane Society of the United States and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have concluded that stunning is the most humane and effective way to kill crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs.
A less common method is “high-pressure processing,” in which lobsters are loaded into a giant, porous metal basket and lowered into a machine. The machine is filled with water and the pressure is increased to 87,000 pounds per square inch, about five times the pressure of the deepest part of the ocean. Lobsters die within six seconds.
At least one Maine processor, Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster, uses that method. The company calls its machine the “Big Mother Shucker.”
Owner John Hathaway has recently expressed interest in leasing space in Portland to expand his lobster processing operation.
A commercial stunner costs about $150,000, Paden estimated, and a high-pressure processing unit would likely be even more expensive.
McAleney said stunning and high-pressure processing are still new technology in an old industry, and are very expensive. He said the lobster processing industry already is highly regulated, by state and federal officials.
“That’s actually why we stopped processing,” he said.
ONLY A FIFTH OF LOBSTER SOLD LIVE
While most Maine residents buy and eat live lobster, only about 20 percent of lobster is sold live. The rest is processed and sold to restaurants, retailers, cruise ship lines and other buyers around the world.
Lobster is a multimillion-dollar industry for the state. In 2012, Maine lobstermen brought in a record catch of 127 million pounds, valued at $341 million.
The state processes an estimated 10 million to 12 million pounds of lobster at 14 licensed facilities. That’s only about 10 percent of all lobster caught in the state. Nearly 70 percent is processed in Canada, which has more facilities.
In the past year, a concerted effort has been made to increase processing capacity in Maine. Many, including Gov. Paul LePage, have said that Maine is losing money and jobs by shipping the product to Canada for processing.
UNPROVEN THAT LOBSTERS FEEL PAIN
There has been longstanding debate over whether lobsters feel pain when they are killed.
Robert Elwood, a professor of animal behavior at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has studied crustaceans and said research has not proven that lobsters feel pain.
“Most people would agree that dogs and cats feel pain, but agreeing is not proof,” Elwood said Monday. “Based on my research, I’ve seen reactions that are consistent with pain and that are not reflex responses.”
Dr. Bj?Roth, an expert on the slaughter of crustaceans at the Norwegian Institute of Food, Fishery and Aquaculture, calls the killing method shown in the video cruel, “carving the animal alive,” according to information provided by PETA.
Asked whether ripping claws off a live lobster is any different from dropping a lobster into boiling water, Elwood said the boiling water would certainly be a quicker death.
“With mammals and birds, we assume that they experience pain, so we’ve become mindful of that when we think about slaughter,” he said.
In an email to the Press Herald, Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said, “Scientists have conducted multiple studies which show that lobsters do not feel pain as they do not have developed nervous systems.”
McCarron could not be reached by phone Monday night.
Slaughterhouses for cattle, pigs and chickens have endured scrutiny historically for their practices. In some cases, the scrutiny has led to new industry standards.
Paden said PETA promotes a vegan lifestyle but is realistic about eating habits and doesn’t expect lobster processing to end.
“If they are going to continue slaughtering animals in this fashion, we want them to be aware of alternative methods,” he said.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: