Greenhead Lobster owner Hugh Reynolds at a new high-pressure processing facility in Bucksport on May 10. Some Maine lobster processors are embracing the technology, which allows them to sell raw lobster meat without the shell. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At the Ready Seafood lobster processing plant in Saco on May 19, about 250 workers were stationed along a massive processing system that kills, butchers, sorts, cooks, extracts, freezes and packs 100,000 pounds of lobster per day.

Above the clatter of the production line is a futuristic upper chamber that houses a $2.5 million high-pressure processing machine, the cornerstone of the new plant, which was built in 2019. That day, claws and knuckles were being carried up from the ground floor by a conveyor belt and dropped into the top of a two-story vertical steel cylinder that hangs from a runner on the ceiling.

Once the enormous cylinder is full, a worker pulls it along the runner to a hole in the floor to a vault, and lowers it inside. A rolling lid assembly slides over automatically, seals shut, and the vault fills with water. Then the pressure is cranked up, holds, and then drops back down over a four- to five-minute cycle.

The high-pressure process, which at least three Maine lobster processors now use, opens up new product options, saves consumers effort in removing meat from shells and cuts down on labor at the processing plant.

“It never ceases to amaze me, starting out as a kid hauling traps by hand,” said Curt Brown, marine biologist at Ready Seafood. “It’s a really neat piece of equipment. This is the future.”

Brown, who has a master’s degree in marine biology and policy from the University of Maine and a decade of experience working at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, was hired seven years ago as part of Ready Seafood’s decision to branch out into science with a focus on quality and sustainability. Brown has brought Ready into several industry-science partnerships with the state Department of Marine Resources, UMaine and other educational institutions, and he does educational outreach to public schools in Maine.

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“You add value by creating new products and investing in the technology like high-pressure processing that enables you to create new products and make lobster more appealing to more people around the world,” Brown said.

Live lobsters enter a high-pressure processing station at Greenhead Lobster in Bucksport on May 10. The company says it is cleaner and more humane toward the lobsters than traditional processing. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Over the past couple of years, more Maine lobster processors have been making the shift to high-pressure processing technology since Richmond-based Shucks Maine Lobster pioneered it in the state in 2006. The technology, originally developed in Spain as a cold pasteurization technique to extend the shelf life of traditional cured hams known as Jamon Serrano, applies water pressure of up to 87,000 pounds per square inch to food products, killing microorganisms with minimal effects on taste, texture and nutritional value, without the need for preservatives.

When lobsters are processed this way, the high pressure also breaks the membrane connecting the meat to the shell, allowing raw meat to be extracted, which was not possible before. The unfamiliar, translucent, gelatinous red meat may not look particularly appetizing, but processors say it opens up many possibilities for new and innovative preparations.

Chefs have been experimenting with new lobster dishes on their menus, and Ready Seafood has been offering tutorials for recipes using “cold-cracked” raw lobster on its Instagram account, from crispy fried lobster meat to lobster carbonara.

It is also a more humane way to kill lobsters than boiling them alive. Since the United Kingdom recognized lobsters as sentient, this has been more on the minds of consumers. Ready Seafood runs the lobsters through an electric-shock stunner just after they are unloaded and then either butchers them first or pressurizes them whole.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has previously endorsed electrocution and high-pressure processing as humane ways to kill lobsters, but currently it is promoting veganism over any consumption of seafood.

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“While the high-pressure killing of lobsters may be slightly less cruel than boiling these sensitive animals to death or ripping them apart, as revealed in PETA’s eyewitness exposés, what lobsters really want is to live in peace,” said PETA Senior Liaison Sofia Chauvet, adding that people can enjoy vegan seafood replacements.

The high-pressure processing makes picking both raw and cooked lobster meat easier, reducing labor needs. Still, Ready Seafood recruits workers from around the world to meet its needs in the harvest season, employing 250 a day at its Saco plant and about 75 at its live lobster facility on the Portland waterfront.

Workers process cooked lobsters at Greenhead Lobster in Bucksport on May 10. The high-pressure process makes it easier to remove shells, which saves money on labor costs. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SMALL BATCH, HIGH PRESSURE

While Ready Seafood processes millions of pounds of lobster a year at its new plant, the technology also has been embraced on smaller scales.

For the past 25 years, Greenhead Lobster has specialized in Stonington live lobster, which it ships around the world. In 2019, amid trade wars and high tariffs, it branched into processing with the construction of a new plant in Bucksport and investment in a horizontal high-pressure processing system made by Spanish manufacturer Hiperbaric.

“It was a big decision,” owner Hugh Reynolds said about the $2.7 million system. “One thing about the machine is we wouldn’t be able to do that many a day. It slows the process down a little bit, but we were OK with that because we just wanted to focus on quality and not so much volume. Now we totally believe in that process.”

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Processing about 30,000 pounds a day and around 5 million pounds a year, Greenhead does not produce as much volume as the larger processors but specializes in small-batch, fully traceable Stonington lobster brought in from Deer Isle. In shoulder seasons, it purchases some lobster from Canada but does not process Maine and Canadian lobster together on the same day. During this month’s site visit, it was processing 148 crates of lobster that had been shipped the 40 minutes from its Stonington dock.

Once unloaded, lobsters are inspected for liveliness and then placed into small cylinders a little bigger than a bread box, onto a conveyor belt that carries them into the pressurizer. Inside, five high-pressure pumps bring the pressure up to a level similar to that found at depths of the Mariana Trench, Reynolds said, which kills the lobsters instantly, as well as microbes that can cause spoilage.

From there, they continue into the processing line, where tails are removed and legs and bodies separated. Raw tails pass through a liquid nitrogen freezer. On cooking days, the claws go into the cooker and pass into the clean room for ready-to-eat products. On other days, the claw and knuckle meat are extracted raw and packaged for sale to distributors and restaurants.

David Rowland puts crates of live lobsters into the cold seawater after a boat came in to Greenhead Lobster in Stonington on May 10. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Reynolds said the decision to branch into processing was prompted by being given an opportunity to sell frozen lobster tails on the QVC home shopping network. He hired a processor for the short term and began researching different processing options.

“I got really focused on trying to create a frozen lobster tail experience that was similar to eating lobster on the dock in the summer,” he said. “That was the vision, to take great-tasting Stonington lobsters but make them more readily available because live lobster was getting more and more complicated.”

He finally settled on high-pressure processing because it extended shelf life, made extraction easier for both workers and the consumer, and preserved meat quality. Greenhead advertises an 18-day shelf life for fresh meat, which helps restaurants not have to worry so much about using it right away.

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Some people said Reynolds was crazy to build the processing plant in Bucksport because of the difficulty finding workers in the area, but the ease of meat extraction with high pressure meant more could be processed with smaller teams. Greenhead employs about 75 to 80 workers and was able to fill the jobs without using foreign visa holders.

Steph Lindsay, director of sales and marketing for Greenhead, said the company did market research and found that getting meat out of lobster tails was a pain point for its customers. The high-pressure process makes that easier.

“It’s like the live lobster experience without the hassle of the lobster cracker,” Lindsay said. “We’ve been doing live for so long, until we could do something like this, we didn’t want to get into processing. It had to be the right technology to live up to our mission of making sure people were getting the best quality Stonington lobster.”

Sternman Ben Foster unloads lobsters from the boat Sleepless Nights at Greenhead Lobster in Stonington on May 10. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

HUMANE AND TASTY DEATH

The fact that high-pressure processing kills lobsters instantly was also important to Greenhead.

Over the years, the team has been perfecting its handling process to keep live lobsters stress-free from the boat to the consumer. At the dock, each lobster is unloaded from the boat and goes up a ramp into a cold water tank, then it gets graded and is held in another saltwater tank.

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Live product is transported to Seabrook in New Hampshire, closer to the airport, and stored in a football field-sized tank until it is ready to be boxed and put on a plane. Each tank is monitored to mimic very cold ocean water as closely as possible.

The company’s interest in reducing lobster stress started as an effort to reduce mortality in transport, but it has since evolved as the team learned about Japanese views of death in meat and fish and the importance of instant euthanization.

Studies suggest that poor handling, storage in unnatural environments, and inhumane slaughtering methods can cause animals to release stress hormones and enzymes, which can be detrimental to meat quality. Other studies in animals show that eating food containing those hormones can cause the same hormones to spike in the consumer.

“We didn’t want to have the processing be something stressful after we’ve spent all that time (storing and transporting) in this proper-handling sort of way,” said Lindsay. “So the death becomes super important, and that’s the way we feel about it. It’s a Japanese philosophy, but there’s research about this.”

The crew of the lobster boat Ellen Ada joke with David Rowland as he unloads lobsters at Greenhead Lobster in Stonington on May 10. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

It is this aspect of the processing that Reynolds and Lindsay would like to bring to the public.

“(High-pressure processing) is a weird, esoteric, technical term, and wholesalers get it but nobody else really does,” Lindsay said, so he is working on devising a better term for the concept for U.S. marketing purposes.

He sees a connection to the Japanese “ike jime,” which refers to a way of slaughtering and handling fish that takes the animal’s welfare into consideration and is intended to preserve meat quality longer and enhance the taste. The method advocates killing a fish with a strong blow to the head or spiking the brain within a minute of removing it from the water as the first step.

While ike jime is a 200-year-old process, high-pressure processing accomplishes many of its goals through technology, and Maine lobster processors are seeing its potential to add value to their products.

“It’s such a traditional industry. It’s this type of technology that enables us to keep growing as a company and as an industry,” Brown of Ready Seafood said. “It’s our job to create value. It’s really what will drive our industry forward into the future.”


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