Population growth around the world is exerting unprecedented pressure on global food production. Already popular in some regions, edible insects for human consumption, are increasingly seen as a key part of the food supply solution.
The nutritional value of edible insects, understood in many cultures, has long been overlooked as a source of sustainable proteins. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) has stated that consumers and the food supply chain needs to include alternate sources of food, such as edible insects, if a food supply is to be maintained and increased to meet the ever-growing demand.
Traditional but Unsustainable
World population growth is outstripping the planet’s food production capacity. The world is already experiencing the overfishing of its oceans, as well as water scarcity and the impacts of climate change. Large-scale increases in traditional farming are not a realistic prospect, according to the FAO’s report Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security. Practical considerations such as water scarcity and limits on farm expansion make conventional solutions unsustainable.
Alternate Food Source
Edible insects are a highly nutritious and healthy food source with fat, protein, vitamin, fibre and mineral content. This may be a sector in its infancy, but insects are not a “famine food” eaten only as a food of last resort when conventional foods are scarce. They have long formed an integral part of human diets.
In many countries, insects are eaten out of preference and have a rich history in local food cultures. However, though the nutritional value of edible insects may not be in doubt, global consumer demand for them is not quite as apparent. In western cultures, where insects are more seen as a nuisance to humans, consumers are perhaps more squeamish and therefore not likely to consider them a food source. Even with that squeamishness, there is beetle soup being sold in France and Germany, sugared butterfly wings in Italy, a Sardinian cheese made with maggots and a large assortment of insects sold commercially in the USA.
To date, most edible insects are harvested in the wild, serving local markets. Insect farming is not unknown, but in the case of bees and silkworms, for example, they are more associated with the production and harvest of other products (honey and silk). Other insects also have a tradition of being farmed for biological control and health reasons.
Commercial farming of insects for food is very much an ongoing project. Some commercial scale producers do exist, but they are not very common. Food and food safety regulation is not yet up to speed with the industry interest in this market.
One of the biggest hurdles farmers face is a lack of supportive legislation/regulation. Generally, legislative references to insects in food and feed prescribe maximum limits for their presence in more conventional foodstuffs. This reflects two important viewpoints. Firstly, a desire to protect food products from intentional or accidental contamination with insects, as opposed to banning their use as product in their own right, and secondly, the very limited development of insect farming on a commercial scale, in any region.
CODEX Alimentarius, the international reference standards for food and food safety, has no specific standards for fresh or processed insects for use as food or feed. It does however include them, in places, as impurities. CODEX does not specifically preclude the intentional production and consumption of insects.
At a regional level, the regulatory landscape is more varied. In Europe, the preparation and production of insects for human consumption is a covered by its EU Novel Food Regulation, EC 258/97. This defines a ‘novel food’ as food and food ingredients not habitually consumed in the EU prior to 1997. Before a novel food can be placed on the market in the EU, it must undergo a thorough risk assessment and be authorised. EU member states can vary these rules. For example, Belgium and the Netherlands each have national rules that allow the marketing of novel foods, including insects. Whereas, Luxembourg’s food safety authority has decided, at this time, to prohibit edible insects. They are waiting for the European Commission conclusion, which is waiting for the European Food Safety Authority’s microbiological, chemical and environmental risk review.
Elsewhere, in markets both traditional and new, the driving force behind the development of rules and standards for the edible insects sector is industry demand. In 2010, Laos unsuccessfully proposed the development of standards for regional trade and food safety guidance for house crickets. In the USA, the feed industry is lobbying for FDA approval to use insects in animal feed.
When classifying novel foods, it is important to reflect on the cultural differences between countries. Novel foods may be considered globally, but where they are derived from natural products, such as insects, while they are novel in some countries, in others they may form part of traditional diets.
Edible Insect Safety
Food processors involved in the edible insect sector are already working within the food safety frameworks associated with more conventional foods. Production facilities adhere to schemes such as GMP and HACCP, applying the same hygiene and safe production principles as for more mainstream products. To ensure product quality and safety, the food industry is investing in edible insect safety assessments as well as third party food testing. These include moisture content, protein, fat, pathogen detection and pesticide residue testing.
Supply & Demand
To meet the needs of a growing population, scientists and food industry regulators, are exploring options for alternative foods. Though they have identified edible insects as a sustainable source of nutritional value, it remains to be seen whether consumer appetite for arthropods is similarly enthusiastic.
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