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Exploring the legal status of edible insects around the world

By Massimo Reverberi

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock
© iStock
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, for whom the American FDA’s stance was enough to allow marketing. 

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 Western 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. The move follows a proposal by Laos’s delegation to set up a working group on crickets as food. This is yet to have been written, though, despite the support of other countries in Southeast Asia and the creation of a document on this topic.

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.

Canada

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.

America

There is no specific set of standards for edible insects in America. 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.

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 not encountered food safety problems and consequently have not been put to the consumption limits or import.

European Union

According to the European Parliament and the Food Safety Agency, Efsa, insects fall into the "novel foods” category, and consequently are subject to lengthy approval processes. 

Four countries do not accept this interpretation and explicitly permit—and in one case, regulate—the marketing and consumption of insects. These are Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. 

In some other countries there is a certain degree of tolerance (France, for example). In others, such as Italy and Germany, the tolerance is zero. Because of the complexity (and cost) of the approvals process, no start-up has as yet submitted an application under the novel food regulations.

In a meeting in October 2015, the European Parliament discussed edible insects in connection with a revision of the novel food law, in order to simplify the steps and reduce the timing (sometimes three years) for approval. The new law will come into effect on January 1, 2018. The details on how to submit a dossier were released last September. 

EFSA has stated that evidence for the approval of crickets as food can be presented in two different ways. The standard process (the entire procedure for which should take about a year), or one defined as “Traditional food from a third country​” (Article 14, law EU in 2283), which is expected to be faster (about six months). However, in this second case, a member country could make an complaint, therefore lengthening the time. 

The procedure provides that an individual applies for approval—this could be a single citizen, a company or an institution, either in the EU or outside. If presented with two applications for the same food, the approval is universal. In other words, once the food—for example, the cricket—is approved, it is for everyone’s benefit, including the producers and importers. 

Belgium

The Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain has produced a specific regulation for edible insects which makes Belgium one of the most advanced nations in terms of entomophagy. The FASFC approved ten insects: two types of cricket (Acheta domesticus​ and Gryllodes Sigillatus​), two types of locust, three variants of mealworm, two types of moths (greater wax moth, lesser wax moth) and silkworms. They have specifically detailed rules for breeding and sale, and no insects bred outside of the European Union are accepted. 

Netherlands

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. 

Denmark

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 are theoretically possible. 

Germany

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. 

Norway

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. This is the position of the food agency, www.mattilsynet.no.

Britain

The Food Safety Agency has shown a favourable position on the sale, consumption and import of edible insects. Insects are also allowed to be used as feed consumption for aquaculture—though not as animal feed. Britain also considers edible insects outside the context of the European regulation on novel foods.

The future is uncertain, though, because of Brexit and the possibility that Britain will have to adhere to EU directions to realign the two on the subject of edible insects from January 2018 (with an extension to 2020 for products already on the market). 

Meanwhile, the FSA sent letters to British edible insect start-ups a letter to request information from them in anticipation that a European approval may be required in the coming years.

Switzerland

The Federal Council has worked extensively on the legislation of insects, based on the oversight of Isabelle Chevalley, National Councillor of the Canton of Vaud, who since 2013 has asked the council repeatedly to take a position. In December 2016, the council finally passed a law (which will take effect May 1) 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.).

Non-western countries

Southeast Asian countries have a tradition of food entomophagy, but do not have regulations relating to the breeding, sale and export of insects. Thailand, the world's largest breeder of crickets, is working on the creation of a first set of breeding guidelines. The ACFS (Thai government agency for the safety of agricultural products) is also expected to release good agricultural practices guidelines for the breeding of crickets by the end of 2017. A preliminary set of these guidelines for GAP was made public by the University of Khon Kaen.

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 and silkworms are available in very large quantities. They are also exported for food consumption, such as to Thailand.

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. 

Related topics: Policy, South East Asia, Supply chain, Meat

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Dutch NVWA

Posted by Salem Lawrence,

The FDA in the Netherlands is: https://english.nvwa.nl/ maybe someone else may try to contact them and find out what is their official position.

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Spanish situation

Posted by massimo reverberi,

@Pablo: a couple of years ago sources from the Spanish Ministerio de Sanidad released very promising statements about edible insects. But eventually, Spain is just sticking to the EU general rule: insects are a novel food, and they need to go through the Novel Food approval process (my estimation for the Acheta Domesticus is end of 2018, for products to be on the market)

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Someone has information from Spain ?

Posted by Pablo - Spain,

Does anyone know, or have information about Spain, and if it can be marketed?

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