Making a meal of worms

Dried yellow mealworms are safe to eat, according to the European Food Safety Authority. However, they may cause allergic reactions in people with allergies to crustaceans and dust mites.

The European Commission will now consider the assessment before final market approval in the EU. The provisional green light from EFSA marks a major step forward for the ‘insect for human food’ industry.

"We hope that this positive assessment will be the first of many and that it will facilitate approvals by reassuring the European and non-EU authorities of the trustworthiness of our industry,” said Antoine Hubert, CEO of Ÿnsect, a startup based in France.

Since the novel food regulation came into effect on January 1st 2018, EFSA has received a large volume of applications, covering a wide variety of novel and traditional food sources. These include herbal products derived from plants, algae-based foods, and non-indigenous fruits – as well as an array of edible insect varieties.

The mealworm, the larval stage of the Molitor beetle, is believed to be the first insect to receive a positive safety evaluation for human consumption in the world. Insects currently available in shops and restaurants are benefitting from the transitional measures in the novel food regulation – these allowed whole insects of a specific species (or a product thereof) to be placed on some national markets. Some however are thought to be illegal.

Brexit makes things slightly more complicated. Companies that submitted a novel food application to the EU before January 1st 2021 that wasn’t completed have to submit an application to the Food Standards Agency in order to gain authorisation to the UK market (though Northern Ireland authorisation procedures follow EU rules, according to the FSA).

EFSA is gradually wading through all the applications, which isn’t easy. “Insects are complex organisms, which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived food products a challenge,” explained Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the first adopted opinion on insects as novel food. “Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed.”

Supporters claim that insects are a far more sustainable protein source than traditional meat, using less land, less water and generating fewer greenhouse gases. They could also enhance the circular economy, through for example using by-products from the food sector as feed, and boast high protein levels.

As the sector grows however there will be more questions asked, not only of their nutritional and environmental benefits, but also in relation to welfare.

And even if all these are answered, will consumers in the West eat them? Speaking at a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum last year, Professor Peter Gregory, chair of the UK’s advisory committee on novel foods and processes, said: “Last week in Malaysia I ate the larvae of black soldier fly as a snack – I’m not expecting to give up potato crisps any time soon.”

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