Science explains why lobster is so incredibly expensive

Boil Lobster

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

A good-looking, but expensive, lobster.

Going out to a restaurant for a Maine lobster dinner puts a dent in anyone's wallet.

Even when the price per pound of lobster goes down at the docks, the prices we pay in restaurants stay high.

The situation seems intractable: A "reasonable" lobster dinner in a big city is one of the most expensive menu items, ranging from $30 to $45 for a lobster weighing 1 to 1 1/2 pounds. The price can run even higher depending on where someone dines and when.
A few important factors contribute to the steep prices.

Unlike with most fisheries, there aren't any commercial farms to cheaply provide a lot of lobsters.

Lobster farming is difficult: The crustaceans grow slowly, eat a lot, are susceptible to a very contagious lobster disease, and their eggs are difficult to raise. The first commercial lobster farm is in development but it's yet to be seen if it will succeed.

So, markets must rely on wild-caught lobsters. To get live Maine lobster - if you don't live near Maine, that is - you need to have it shipped to you. Keeping lobsters alive when shipping is challenging because they need to stay cool, moist, and have enough oxygen to breathe and live.

If someone in California wants to order live Maine lobster, for example, the shipping itself can be more than $40 per crustacean. But the lobster could arrive dead, so it's better to order in bulk, and the cost of those dead lobsters gets cooked into the one you're eating.Lobster tastes best when cooked alive. It's tough and rubbery if frozen or cooked when dead. That means most of the lobster you eat anywhere in the country comes through the live lobster market.


AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

Live lobster, straight from the dock.

Another reason you want your lobster cooked alive is because bacteria love to live inside the animals. This can infect people and make them sick if the lobster isn't cooked right away. If the lobster dies far ahead of cooking, then the bacteria has ample time to grow and spoil the meat.

The "live market" only accepts harder-shelled lobsters for restaurants, or stores where people can buy live lobsters. Those with softer shells get sold to processing plants.

But processing soft-shelled lobster isn't the easiest feat. The meat is the only part of the animal desired, and it's difficult to get it out of the shell when uncooked - and cooking it before packaging makes the meat tough. One lobster processing company is using high water pressure to get to separate the meat more easily, but the industry as a whole is still underdeveloped.

Either processed or live, a lobster changes hands many times on its way from the ocean floor to your plate. Typically it goes from the fisherman, to a dealer, then either to the live market or a processor, then to a grocery store or restaurant for consumers to purchase. Each time a lobster is passed along the price goes up.

As Linda Bean, who owns lobster processing plants, told the Portland Press Herald:

People get paid for each step along the way and we have to account for the losses. That's how a lobster roll costs $17 and a white tablecloth, fancy lobster dinner costs $60 in a big city.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

How much would you pay for this?

Another reason lobster is such an expensive delicacy could be that humans enjoy eating expensive food.

In the mid-1900s, lobster underwent a huge change from its original role as fertilizer into the luxury it is today, fueled by railroads and tourism.

As James Suroweicki writes in The New Yorker:

In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster's image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.

Also, because the shellfish is so delicate, cheap lobster raises suspicion that it's of inferior quality or potentially dangerous, according to a 1996 study.One respondent in that study said people would feel it's "some kind of scam." While another said, "lobster is perceived as an expensive high end product. You don't want to confuse that image by setting the price too low."

If you do want cheap lobster it'll likely cost you travel expenses out to the coast during lobster season - just make sure the lobsters have molted.

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