Although we regularly cover bug testing for food safety, we’ve never covered bugs as edible items on Examining Food. However, rising interest in edible insects as novel protein sources means that food industry members, including producers, regulatory officials and allied biotechnology companies, will need to pay attention to ensure consumer safety.
Interest in insects as protein sources is growing for a variety of reasons; global food security is one concern, but others include sustainability, nutritional value and animal welfare. Insects are nutritionally dense, contain easily digestible fiber and may be healthier to eat than animal proteins. Furthermore, to some people, killing insects for food offers a more humane alternative to slaughtering animals such as cows, poultry and pigs. A recent report, Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) summarizes many of the key benefits and ideas.
Apart from the popularity of Sardinian casu marzu, entomophagy—eating insects for food—has a greater history in non-western cultures where beetle larvae, caterpillars and ants are sought-after delicacies. According to United Nation statistics, insects make up part of the diet for around 2 billion people globally. There is therefore a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) tradition in edible insects for producers to rely on…if they can overcome western consumer aversion.
But what about considerations other than the “ick” factor? As with all novel foods, there is often no pathway in place to specifically address safety and wholesomeness issues. Many countries regulate according to how much insect matter is permissible in other foods; very few have specific legislation to address insects themselves as food.
Finland’s food safety authority, Evira, is currently involved in feedback discussions among insect farmers and other stakeholders for guidelines on using insects as food. Once drawn up, these should establish key safety points such as species approval, labeling requirements and training for food inspectors.
In the United States, edible insects fall under current legislation, since they fit the definition for food as described under US Code Title 21, Subchapter II: Definitions. This means that they must be wholesome, labeled appropriately to declare origin, species and allergen content, toxin-free, and produced under sanitary conditions. There is, however, no specific regulation. In the United Kingdom and individual countries within the European Union, insects are already “flying off the shelves.” The European Union allows countries to make their own decisions on this individually, but only until 2020, when European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) approval for edible insects becomes law.
In terms of food safety considerations, what are regulatory officials looking at to make sure that the chocolate-covered grasshopper, cricket granola and mealworm flour is safe? It may not surprise you to find out that a lot of the considerations are also those that apply to more conventional foodstuffs—contamination, allergy, and so on.
Insects may carry both microbial and parasitic hazards. Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Enterobacteriaceae species have all been identified in insects, either as primary pathogens or from environmental contamination. Salmonella and Campylobacter species have also been recorded.
It is also possible for insects to act as hosts for a range of parasites harmful to humans; flukes, nematodes, Entamoeba histolytica, Giardia lamblia and Toxoplasma species have all been isolated from insects that are considered potential menu items. Edible insects may also be important vectors of trypanosomiasis, while ingesting fly eggs can lead to intestinal myiasis.
Consumers deserve to know what they are eating. They also need to know the species and origin of their bug grub in order to make informed decisions on whether to tuck in or not. There is also a safety issue, as certain known dietary allergens also exist in insect species.
Consumers may need to be educated on allergy issues, since cross-reaction among allergen groups found within insect species is possible. For example, chitin found in bug exoskeletons is a known allergen that is also present in crustacean shells. Cross-reactions between house dust mite sensitivity and yellow mealworms have been reported. Proper labeling for edible insect products is important for consumer safety.
Contamination with microbial pathogens as well as chemical and pesticide residue is possible, depending on farming or source. For this reason, strict legislation is required to ensure husbandry and inspection standards specific to edible insect farming, gathering and production facilities.
Hazards include choking on insect exoskeletons and injury from stings, barbs and body parts that contain toxins. The food industry will have consider these hazards and carefully select and regulate species approved for edible insect production.
Not all insects are equal when it comes to pancake flour or a snack on a stick; faced with a novel food, consumers will need both guidance and protection to make safe choices. The food industry cannot scuttle away from this one.
What are your views on edible insects?