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EU has a ‘Tolerated’ Trade in Insects as a Protein Source

Earlier this year, Belgium’s Federal Agency for Safety of the Food Chain stated that insects for human consumption “appear to offer great potential” as an alternative protein source. The agency’s Scientific Committee went so far as to acknowledge that breeding and marketing insects is already being tolerated in some parts of the European Union without any formal regulations.

Now the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is getting involved by studying the potential risks from production, processing, and consumption of insect protein.

Plates of cooked insectsEFSA states that it has addressed this question with a risk profile that identifies the potential biological and chemical hazards, as well as allergenicity and environmental hazards associated with the use of farmed insects as food and feed.

The group’s scientific opinion, published Oct. 8, 2015, also compares these potential hazards with those associated with mainstream sources of animal protein. The possible presence of biological and chemical hazards in food and feed products derived from insects would depend on the production methods, what the insects are fed on (substrate), the lifecycle stage at which the insects are harvested, the insect species, as well as the methods used for further processing.

EFSA’s scientific experts say that when non-processed insects are fed with currently permitted feed materials, the potential occurrence of microbiological hazards is expected to be similar to that associated with other non-processed sources of protein. There are limited data available on the transfer of chemical contaminants from different types of substrate to the insects themselves. The occurrence of prions — abnormal proteins that can cause diseases such as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans — is expected to be equal or lower if the substrate does not include protein derived from humans (manure) or ruminants.

EFSA’s scientific opinion also considers the possible hazards associated with other types of substrate, such as kitchen waste and animal manure.

The environmental risk of insect farming is also expected to be comparable to other animal production systems. Existing waste management strategies should be applicable for disposing of waste from insect production. EFSA’s opinion is based on data from peer-reviewed scientific literature, assessments performed by member states, and information provided by relevant stakeholders.

Insects represent a niche food market in the EU, where EFSA notes that several member states report “occasional human consumption.” Nonetheless, the use of insects as a source of food and feed potentially has important environmental, economic and food security benefits, according to the EU’s top food safety agency. It states that the insect species reported to have the greatest potential for use as food and/or feed in the EU include houseflies, mealworms, crickets and silkworms.

Several organizations, including the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), have studied the possibility of using insects for food and feed, and three EU member states — Belgium, France and the Netherlands — have performed risk assessments related to insects as food or feed.

The European Commission is currently co-financing a research project to explore the feasibility of using insect protein for feed. The commission is also considering how to develop policy in the areas of novel foods and animal feed to reflect the potential use of insects as food and feed. EFSA’s recently released scientific opinion was requested to support this work.

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