The general press has launched – in several waves and shades, with the addition of neophobia from some organizations – the news that, starting January 1st 2018, insects would be available to eat thanks to the new Novel Food Regulation. (1) Before making comments, it seems necessary to shed some light on the subject.
In the Gospel according to Mark, it is said ‘John was dressed with camel fur, with a leather belt, eating grasshoppers and wild honey’(Mc 1.6).
Wannabe candidates of the Baptist – while being able to purchase leather clothes and belts, as well as wild honey – will have to wait at least half a dozen months to retrieve the grasshoppers, locusts and other insects on the shelves of Italian and French supermarkets.
The new Novel Food Regulation, Reg. UE 2015/2283, introduces the possibility of using also insects and their parts in the diet of European citizens. Insects are actually explicitly recognized and mentioned as potential food ingredient in accordance with the procedures of risk assessment and authorizations laid down by the regulation.
Some EU Member States – like Belgium, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Finland – have meanwhile authorized the use of insects or parts of them in the production of food and feed, given the positive evaluation – in terms of substantial lack of risks to human or animal health- stated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in 2015. (2)
Insects to eat, which species?
Insects represent to this date in Europe a niche industry, in the face of sporadic and occasional consumption reported in some Member states.
Insect species with the greatest potential for usage in UE in the production of food and feed include crickets and silk worms, mealworms and domestic flies.
FAO, Food and Agricultural Organization for the United Nations (3), has performed assessments on the risk of consumption of different insects by humans and animals.
The European Commission, in its turn, is co-financing a research project on exploring the feasibility of using insect proteins in animal feed.
Efsa (the European Food Safety Authority), on behalf of the European Commission, has evaluated the necessary conditions to guarantee the safety of a series of different insects (4) in the production of food and feed. Taking account of both how the insects are grown (with close attention to the organic substrate for their nutrition), the production process and the consumption pattern.
From a nutritional standpoint, according to EFSA, insects should be distinguished for their high, sometimes remarkable, protein content. Up to 71% in crickets. A positive aspect, that deserves attention since proteins are one of the main allergenic vectors.
Insects to eat, what rules?
Regulations on organic farming (5), then again, already in 2007 included insects in the animals that can be cultured, respecting nature, including them in the definition of livestock production.
The current Regulation on Novel Food (6) indeed covers the possibility of authorizing ‘products made from insects’ (including insect-meal), unprocessed insects or insects as ingredients for novel food.
‘In view of scientific studies and technological developments (…), it is appropriate to review, clarify and update the types of food which form novel foods. Those categories should cover whole insects and their parts.’ (reg. UE 2015/2283, Recital 8)
It remains to be verified whether any possible food consumption experience of certain insects, in Europe before 1997, took place. Should this evidence be attained, their placing on the market would be quite simple. Albeit, prior assurance of compliance with the requirements on hygiene and food safety which apply in the EU. (7)
More likely, in the majority of cases, the European Commission will be called to authorize the placing on the market of Novel Food partially or entirely made from insects, after a risk assessment by the EFSA. With the power to adopt a simplified procedure in favor of food matrices that have been consumed for over 25 years in third countries. (8)
Insects to eat, a reality into effect
Experiences developed in Europe in the past years show how insect-eating is a reality into effect, before than in the making. Especially in Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark (as well as Finland and Norway). The insects most commonly used belong to a dozen species including Tenebrio molitor, crickets, locusts and maggots (also silkworms).
Insect-meal (or parts of insects) dried and crushed seem to be collecting the most success, as included ingredients – often at a marginal share, but useful to the input of protein it offers -in ordinary foodstuffs, that belong to the everyday consumption.
The intended products are sports energy bars, snacks, pasta and baked goods (also common bread, spiked with insect-meal) and food supplements. Sports foods and delicatessen always in exotic packages have launched a path that has been initially oriented towards discerning consumers careful to specific aspects (nutrition/health claim, environmental or experience-based). Until the ordinary consumer is intercepted, widening the market outlook towards foodstuffs of everyday use and in today’s channel distributions.
Only time will show the evolution of food consumption towards insect-eating, it is difficult at this stage to predict radical changes. Especially in countries like ours, where food culture is anchored to traditions and stoic to new things, from nouvelle cuisine to molecular gastronomy.
Insects will probably not become the primary source of protein – nor have they ever been, in any civilization that had alternatives – however some species, mainly in form of flour, may gradually become part of our diet. In the spirit of nutrition and sustainability of production, in terms of remaining water and environmental footprints. (9)
Who knows if our children and grandchildren will one day joke on the perplexities in the past, towards what pretty soon could be taken for granted, as well as harmless.
(2) See EFSA Scientific Committee, 2015. Scientific Opinion on a risk profile related to production and consumption of insects as food and feed. EFSA Journal 2015;13(10):4257, 60pp. doi:10.2903/j.efsa.2015.4257. See https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/151008a
(4) Musca domestica (Common housefly); Hermetia illucens(Black soldier fly); Tenebrio molitor (Mealworm); Zophobasatratus (Giant mealworm); Alphitobus diaperinus (Lesser mealworm); Galleria mellonella (Greater wax moth); Achroiagrisella (Lesser wax moth); Bombyx mori (Silkworm); Acheta domesticus (House cricket); Gryllodes sigillatus(Banded cricket); Locusta migratora migratorioides (African migratory locust); Schistocerca Americana (American grasshopper). See previous Note 2
(5) See CE Regulation 834/2007, Article 2.f
(6) See Regulation UE 2015/2283, Recital 8, Article 3.2
(8) See Regulation UE 2015/2283, Articles 14-20
(9) The implementation of the rules already in place, as for their evolution, won’t even be able to refrain from considering animal welfare also in regards to insect farming. As has already happened for shellfish, whose wellbeing would not have been considered in times before ours