Entomophagy is a new phenomenon in the West, and as a result it is rarely regulated. This leads to public institutions like food agencies, customs and health departments often finding themselves helpless in the face of new product development based on processed insects.
From a geographical point of view, there are three legal trends. First, there are the “Anglo-Saxon” countries: UK, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, for whom edible insects do not represent a novel food, and the food agencies have authorized import and sales.
Then there are the non-English-speaking Western countries, and the European Union, in particular, which have felt the need to have rules and provide approvals before allowing any marketing.
Non-Western countries comprise the remaining trend: there, insects are often a traditional food, but rarely packaged and exported or imported.
In these countries, customs and the FDA had never found themselves facing packaged products containing insects, as insects were usually found in the local market, unpackaged. And in the absence of regulations these agencies have sometimes shown inconsistent reactions.
I’ve compiled here a collection of the regulatory position of insects in some countries. Matters that may be subject to rules are breeding, production, marketing, and import/export. There are cases where the marketing of edible insects is legal, but the import or export is not (for example, Belgium does not accept insects from non-EU countries).
In addition, there is the matter of food legislation, which is often lacking industry standards for insect foods. In particular, insects are not included in the Codex Alimentarius, which contains an international guideline for food safety.
Additions to the Codex will be decided by member nations of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations at their next quadrennial meeting.
Customs offices also often have difficulty in finding reference points. Harmonised system codes decided internationally by the World Customs Organisation for the nomenclature of goods do not contain any definition that refers to insects as food. The creation of new codes can be requested by a member state, but the process will take probably years.
Crickets are not considered as a novel food, and today the largest breeder in North America is located in Canada and serves some local start-ups, including One Hop Kitchen. If, however, an insect lacks a history of safe consumption, it might fall back into the novel food category pending an evaluation by the Bureau of Microbial Hazards in the Food Directorate.
There is no specific set of standards for edible insects in USA. The FDA has made public its opinion, which is the current legal basis for the market. To be allowed for market, the insects must have been bred for human consumption. Products containing insects must of course follow the standards required by the FDA including bacteriological tests and good manufacturing practice certification. The label on the product must include the common name and the insect’s scientific name, and note the potential risks of allergy. Import from other countries is allowed, and the US FDA has already updated its Import Prior Notice with a list of edible insects products.
Australia and New Zealand
Both nations share an agency for the maintenance of food safety, Fsanz. This agency has addressed some cases like the super mealworm (Zophobas morio ), the domestic cricket (Acheta domesticus ) and the moth (Tenebrio molitor ), deciding that they are not novel foods, even though they cannot be considered traditional foods either. In particular, they have yet to encounter food safety problems and consequently have not been put to the consumption limits or import.
In 2015, the European Parliament decided that insects fall into the “novel foods” category, and consequently are subject to lengthy approval processes. From January 2018, the new Novel Food law is in place, and the application is supposed to be simplified. Timeframe is expected to be around one year for approving a request and House Crickets and mealworms are supposed to be among the first request to be received by the EU. Once a species is approved, all the products containing it can be marketed in all the EU country. In other words, once the food—for example, the house cricket—is approved, it is for everyone’s benefit, including the producers and importers.
The European Commission has developed an e-submission system for Novel Food applications: https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/novel_food_en
In some countries there is a certain degree of tolerance (France, for example). In others, such as Italy and Germany, the tolerance is close to zero.
5 countries did not accept the 2015 decision of the EU and since then has permitted—and in some case, regulate—the marketing and consumption of insects. These are Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland.
The EU challenged these countries to follow the EU rules from January 2018, but also allowed them a transitional period of 12 months, ending on January 2019. During the transitional period, insects that were sold in those countries can still be on the shelves.
The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain has produced a specific regulation for edible insects which made Belgium one of the most advanced nations in terms of entomophagy, although no insects bred outside of the European Union are accepted. They now updated their regulation according to the EU transitional period and they are expected to stick to the EU rules from January 2019.
The Netherlands is home to some mealworm and cricket farms designed to breed for for human consumption. These include the leader, Protifarm (and its subsidiary Kreca), as well as some start-ups active in the marketing and production of edible insects. Its legal basis is not clear, though, and the public body responsible for food safety (NVWA) has refused to comment.
The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration believes that whole insects (including flour, if coming from whole insects) do not fall under the EU novel food legislation. As a result, imports from non-EU countries is possible for those insects falling under the transitional period (mealworm and house crickets, for example). Denmark is jumping ahead with edible insect intitiatives.
Finland has followed the danish example in the last months of 2017, releasing rules for import and sales of edible insects. As for the other countries which allowed edible insect prior to 2018, they are now in the transitional period for 12 months.
The control of food in Germany is a task for the 16 federal states. The Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) fulfils only some coordination functions, so its position is not legally binding and it is aligned with the EU commission decision: insects or parts of insects are novel food and cannot be sold in Germany until a procedure for novel food approval has been finalised. But in March 2018 Metro Group announced the launch of a mealworm pasta, therefore we must assume they got a local or federal green light for it.
Norway is not an EU member, but belongs to the European Economic Area and therefore follows a number of European regulations. Still, their interpretation of edible insects is that when they are whole (as opposed to parts or isolates of insects), they do not fall under the novel food law. Import would be accepted if custom is cleared in an EU country. This is the position of the Norwegian food agency.
For years, the Food Safety Agency has shown a favourable position on the sale, consumption and import of edible insects. Britain also considers edible insects outside the context of the European regulation on novel foods.
The future is uncertain, though, because of Brexit. According to an email of the British food agency, they will for now adhere to the transitional period: until January 2019, insect species sold in the past can stay on the market.
In December 2016, the council passed an edible insect law (which took take effect May 1, 2017) allowing the sale and consumption of three species: crickets (Acheta domesticus), migratory locust and mealworm. Among the requirements, the insects must have been bred for human consumption and after slaughter must be treated according to the criteria of food security (high temperatures, freezing, etc.). The rules released by the food agency (OSAV) are very strict and complex. In the case of import from non EU countries, they requires the insect to be whole, shipped only by plane to Zurich or Geneva, and accompanied by an incredibly long list of lab test and certificates.
Southeast Asian countries have a tradition of entomophagy, but do not have regulations relating to the breeding, sale and export of insects. Thailand, the world’s largest breeder of crickets, has just completed the creation rearing guidelines for cricket farming (GAP – Good Agricultural Practice). An English version of the Thai GAP standard is available here.
Even in China, insects are a common culinary ingredient in many regions, but there are still no mentions of this in food law. An exception, though, is silkworm pupae, which was included in 2014 in the list of foods allowed by the Ministry of Health. China is the world’s largest producer of silk (500.000 tons of silkworm pupae per year). They are also exported for food consumption, such as to Thailand and Japan.
South Korea’s government launched a process to legalise some edible insects in 2011. On the list there are mealworm, crickets (not the usual Acheta Domesticus , but the Gryllus bimaculatus species) and some larvae. Following this preliminary process, in 2016, the Korean Food and Drug Administration classified crickets and mealworms as normal foods, without restrictions. It is expected that other insects will be added soon to the eligibility list.
A version of this article has been published on Food Navigator magazine, Asian edition.