Ban them or boost them? The EU's struggle with edible insects

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The ‘future food’ is here! But it’s for display purposes only… Passing through Milan a few months ago, BUGSfeed editor Ben Kempas went on a mission to eat some insects at the gigantic Expo Milan. This vast exhibition was themed on ‘Feeding the Planet’ – so naturally, edible insects would be available, given all the recent hype about them?

Well, no. You can read Ben’s account of the day here, but the brief version is that he traipsed around this huge exhibition all day without ever getting to lay his hands on a real, consumable bug. To make it worse, he did find them – crunchy grasshoppers, tinned crickets, you name it – but they were sealed off behind glass. Because in Italy, bizarrely, it is not yet legal to serve edible insect products. And yet in other EU countries like Belgium, the situation is quite different. So what’s really going on in Europe?

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Grasshoppers in the supermarket? Photo: Ben Kempas for BUGSfeed

Is it legal to sell edible insects in the EU?

This might seem a simple question but it’s been causing consternation for the European Union’s Food Safety Authority. With some notable exceptions, no one really knows what’s legal and what’s not, because previous food regulations didn’t cover insect ingredients.  

The EU rules are pretty complicated, and there are moves towards ‘harmonising’ everything into one rule on food safety, including insects. But will this be a good thing?

Late in 2015 the long-awaited opinion of the European Food Safety Authority arrived. It tentatively suggested that edible insects might be just as safe as other food sources, but that depended on what they’re fed. More research was called for (as ever).

Edible insects as 'novel food'

The European Commission says: “Insects are already widely consumed around the world. In the EU, insects fall within the definition of novel food as food ingredients isolated from animals.

“The new legislation clarifies that also whole animals, such as whole insects, if not consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU prior to 15 May 1997 (cut-off date of the Regulation), these fall also under the definition of novel food.”

Now, producers have been reacting differently to the prospect of Novel Food designation. The application fee to get your product approved in the UK is £4,000 (€5,150). How burdensome this turns out to be for producers will depend on how strict the regulations are: if lots of companies can pool costs and submit a joint application for, say, grasshoppers, this will spread the cost – but it may be stricter and require individual applications for each product with grasshopper in them.

Two cricket bars, two countries, and a very different take

Two producers who have very different takes on the situation are Crobar and Jungle Bar.

legal4.jpgChristine Spliid of Crobar, the energy bar manufactured in the UK, said it was good news, with costs looking to be lower than expected.

But over in Iceland – not an EU member, but as a member of the European Economic Area following some of the rules – the producers of Jungle Bar, made with crickets just like Crobar, are unimpressed after their product was whisked off the shelves within minutes in late 2015.

We’ll cover this story in more depth in the coming weeks, but it’s fair to say that the situation is complicated – and frustrating for people who want to sell their products.

One way to avoid Novel Food designation is to prove that there’s a history of consumption of the ingredient before 1997. That’s why the UK’s Food Standard Agency were recently asking edible insect producers to prove their insect products had been ‘traditionally’ eaten, i.e. prior to 1997.

The situation is complicated, frustrating, uncertain

This brings up some fascinating case studies. For instance, the May bug, or cockchafer, once swarmed across Europe and was eaten widely right up til the early 20th century. Pesticide use has wiped them out – and seemingly our memories of eating them went along with it, as insect-eating traditions are seen as a ‘non-western’ phenomenon. So would this insect be accepted as ‘traditional’ and therefore avoid regulation? It seems unlikely, said one expert we spoke to. Brief mentions in old cookbooks probably aren’t going to satisfy the authorities. Whereas casu marzu – a soft, maggot-filled cheese local to Sardinia – might stand a better chance: it’s still eaten there today and has been for many generations.

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Casu marzu. Photo: Nordic Food Lab, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

So how come I can buy edible insects in some EU countries?

Despite this uncertainty, edible insects are ‘taking off’ in several EU countries. This is because member states can choose to tolerate (read: not punish) the sale of edible insects. You’re able to buy insects to eat in the UK, France, and the Netherlands without much problem. Belgium has actually legalised ten specific species (see the list here).

Some states are playing it safe and waiting for the EU to make a move. Luxembourg took this approach, issuing a ban on the sale of edible insects.

Can I eat insects in restaurants?

You certainly can in the Netherlands, the UK and Belgium. But in other countries it gets confusing. In Spain vendors have been shut down suddenly, but a legal ‘vacuum’ means that insects can be eaten in restaurants. Wholesale vendors technically can’t sell their insects, so restaurant-bound insects would be imported, despite startups like Insagri proving how well-suited southern Spain is to raising insects for food and animal consumption.

Tolerated in restaurants but prohibited in supermarkets

Even in Denmark – home to Noma, the world-famous restaurant which sometimes serves insects – products have been taken off the shelves in supermarkets after their legal status was questioned.

What’s going to happen next in the EU?

The reason that the UK’s food standard agency was asking producers for proof that their insect products shouldn’t be considered ‘novel’ is that the European Commission is trying to harmonise novel food regulations across all member states. It says this is to “allow safe and innovative food placed on the EU market faster without compromising public health.”

An end to the confusion and uncertainty would probably be welcomed by producers and retailers – as well as consumers – but if it means all insects must pass pre-market approval as ‘novel foods’, that might take time. And who knows, some might even be rejected.

Given the current direction of travel in the EU, it’s worth asking who would benefit from such a move. The now infamous trade deal TTIP between the US and EU looks set to force member states into accepting ‘harmonised’ agricultural regulations which will hurt small farmers (including small insect farmers) while massively enriching the largest companies.

Why are big business lobbying for entomophagy?

legal1.jpgThe commercial lobby are wasting no time - there’s a great deal of profit to be made in feeding insects to livestock and fish. A lobby group made up of companies who produce insects for feed have come together to lobby the EU. One of their ideas is to allow access to waste from expired supermarket products, which can feed the insects, which feed the livestock or fish, which feed the humans. They call it ‘closing the nutrient cycle’.

Whether or not the ‘International Platform for Insects for Food & Feed’ is successful, the lobbyists’ involvement shows that the EU is coming under pressure from large and small producers alike. We’ll have to wait to see what happens next.

For more on insects as feed, look out for our guest blog by scientist Mark Ramsden this week.

Is it safe if the regulations aren’t in place yet?

The current advice is to exercise the usual caution, and particularly avoid insects if you’re allergic to other foodstuffs. Many insects are similar to crustaceans, so if you don’t get on with shellfish it’s best to give insects a miss.

Keeping traditions alive – or the dangers of eating live maggots

There’s always a tension between tradition and safety. Take casu marzu, mentioned above: it's one of the products with an ‘uncertain’ legal status. If it can’t be proved that it’s traditional, it will come under Novel Food regulations which come into force in January 2018.

Locals say they’ve eaten it for centuries with no ill effects. In fact it’s believed to be an aphrodisiac! Others though have warned of dangerous consequences of eating live maggots. It’s a tricky question: should this be banned, or is that just the sort of ‘harmonisation’ that makes it so difficult for traditional cultures to continue?

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