Eating out is becoming a blood sport.
According to recent news stories, food adventure clubs--whose members sample "gross-out" dishes such as saute'ed lamb's brains and duck embryos--are springing up across the country. During one recent outing at a Korean restaurant in New York, a group of gastro-warriors dined on freshly vivisected lobster and live octopus. The lobster's head watches as you consume the body, and the octopus writhes as a chef clips off his tentacles--which diners eat quickly while the limbs are still wriggling.
Apparently, it's not enough that we eat all manner of dead animals--now we have to eat live ones too. But consuming live animals doesn't just push the boundaries of good taste: It's animal abuse.
"Live seafood," which has been available in upscale sushi bars for some time, is increasingly finding its way onto the menus of more mainstream restaurants. Adventurous eaters might try live shrimp, "drunken prawns" (live prawns are plucked from a tank, doused in alcohol and set ablaze) or live flounder.
To prepare this last dish, chefs fillet the live fish down to the bone--leaving the head and tail intact--chop and season the raw flesh and return the meat to the fish's skeleton. The flounder is pinned down with wooden skewers to prevent the fish from jumping off your plate.
Sea animals are not merely swimming vegetables, and it's not OK to carve up their bodies as casually as one would a carrot or a rutabaga. Fish and octopuses are smart, have unique personalities--and are sensitive to pain.
Researchers know that octopuses, for example, are extremely intelligent and curious animals. They play, just as dolphins and dogs do, and are often mischief-makers in aquariums. Otto, an octopus in a German aquarium, has been observed juggling the hermit crabs who live in his tank. Another octopus, after being given a slightly spoiled shrimp, stuffed the offending morsel down the drain while maintaining eye contact with his keeper.
Scientists recently filmed octopuses in Indonesia collecting discarded coconut shells, emptying them out and using them as shelters--the first time an invertebrate animal has been observed using tools.
Lobsters recognize individual lobsters, remember past acquaintances and have elaborate courtship rituals. Fish "talk" to one another underwater and form complex social relationships. Scientists at Stanford University say that fish have the reasoning capacity of small children.
These animals also feel pain--as all animals do.
In December 2005, the European Food Safety Authority's Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare concluded that lobsters, crabs and octopuses are all capable of experiencing pain and distress and are worthy of legal protection.
After surveying the scientific literature on fish pain and intelligence, a team of researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada concluded that fish feel pain and that "the welfare of fish requires consideration." Researchers who conducted a two-year study on fish pain at the Roslin Institute in Scotland reached the same conclusion.
Eating dinner so fresh that it squirms is nothing more than macho posturing. Here's the great irony of the live seafood trend: It's actually rather stale. You never hear about "adventurous" eaters taking on beer-battered seitan or coconut-grilled tofu. No, it's always some poor animal. But there's really nothing new or original about abusing animals for food--that happens every day in slaughterhouses and restaurant kitchens.
I have a challenge for foodies who truly want to push the envelope: Go vegan. Trade in your live octopus and pork brains for tempeh sausages and dairy-free tiramisu cupcakes--then you'll really have people talking.
Paula Moore is a research specialist for The PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.