Not so novel: food regulators and the status of edible insects
Wednesday 7th June
With edible insects still a fairly new phenomenon in the West, legislation remains a minefield that leaves food innovators to navigate a complicated legal landscape as they meet growing consumer demand. Massimo Reverberi, founder of Bugsolutely, reviews the current legal status of edible insects and previews changes to come.
Insects made their way into the human diet thousands of years ago, and continue to be enjoyed as gourmet cuisine and protein-rich sustenance for millions of people around the world. Their entry into the West isn’t only hindered by consumer attitudes: Governments and international bodies continue to grapple with how edible insects fit into existing food legislation frameworks.
The result is a patchwork landscape which proves challenging for bug startups seeking to advance edible insect technology and promote processed insect food consumption in Western markets. In English-speaking markets, i.e. the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, edible insects are mostly subject to the often inconsistent opinion of the food safety agencies. The European Union instead have defined a regulatory path at the level of the EU parliament, however sentiment and regulation still changes dramatically from country to country. In areas like Southeast Asia, China and South America – despite insects being bred and prepared as traditional food – there is little or no regulation, even less than in the West.
Western regulators are split on whether insects sit within existing food legislation or constitute a novel food product, which requires extensive testing. In the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, insects are recognised as food which falls under existing safety regulations, making these prime markets for edible insect packaged products. The European Union on the other hand decided in 2015 to classify insects as novel food, therefore subjecting any bug businesses to a 3 year approval process and a mountain of documentation prior to being able to sell insects in European markets. Such severe regulations were understandably put in place after the panic of the mad cow disease, however with insects being eaten safely across the globe, such regulations seem over the top. Things are set to look up from January 2018 when a new EU Novel Food Law will be implemented, making the approval process much simpler and shorter, however until then, startups and organisations are sitting tight on submitting any new requests under the old regulation.
To complicate things further, some European countries decided to diverge from the EU decision, creating pockets for booming bug business within the EU. National authorities in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Switzerland have rejected the idea that insects require a long approval process and these markets therefore permit production and consumption of edible insect products, and in some cases, allow import from non-EU countries. However even these countries have their fare share of limitations with Switzerland only accepting imports of whole insects and only by air into Geneva or Zurich airports when coming from outside the EU. Norway allows import of whole insects from non-EU countries but these must first be cleared as a safe product by another EU country’s customs.
Legislation on insects as food clearly has a long way to go but with the edible insect market quickly developing around consumer interest in the West, this will hopefully wake governments up to the benefits of creating an open space for insect innovators. After all, the business potential of insects is considerable. Thailand produces 5,000 tons of food-grade crickets per year and China a further 500,000 tons of silkworms. We are talking about top-quality, nutritionally rich meat that is reared in a sustainable way.
So what can we do? Insect innovators need to push for recognition of insects in international food standards by legislators, regulators, and customs authorities, for example in the food code standards developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Next we need to get insects added onto the World Customer Organisation’s Harmonised System codes, which defines the categories of products for import/export operations. Essentially, we need to get edible insects to be globally recognised as a category of food.
And how do insect innovators turn a rising trend into a permanent food fixture? While consumer consensus is definitely changing in the West, insects as food still remains a taboo subject for many. So for companies such as Bugsolutely and Jimini’s, incorporating insect protein into everyday foods such as pasta and energy bars, seems like a good strategy to develop an appetite for these healthy little grubs. For these insect innovators, the priority must be to put such products to rigorous quality and taste standards, ensure they contain the highest possible percentage of insect protein (some currently contain as little as 5%) and market them in well designed, sleek and modern packaging. If they can get these things right then the sky’s the limit for the future of insects in the diets of a health conscious western audience of foodies.
Find out more about Bugsolutely: www.bugsolutely.com
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