s business and consumer interest in edible insects gathers pace, the Food and Agriculture Organization calls for more food safety regulation and better studies about the possible harm to humans.
The new report Looking at Edible Insects from a Food Safety Perspective, agrees that edible insect production is more land-use efficient than traditional protein sources. It takes two to ten times less agricultural land to produce one kilogram of edible insect protein compared to the same amount of pig or cattle protein.
It also produces far less greenhouse gas than conventional livestock, with pigs producing 10 to 100 times more per kilogram of weight than mealworms.
This helps to explain the growing interest in edible insects, with consumers buying processed edible insects like powder or flour online, to bake with. But studies found potentially harmful bacteria in processed edible insects sold online. The report says, “An appropriate framework will not only regulate the online trade of edible insects but also ensure the health of consumers.”
It adds, “Around 931 million tonnes of food, or 17 percent of the total food available to consumers, was wasted in 2019.”
So insect production “represents an attractive way to reuse food waste, and contribute to a circular economy… Studies show that certain insect species can be used to recycle low-quality plant-derived side streams and animal manure into high value biomass… it is an attractive opportunity to create resources that find applications in animal feed, biofuels, pharmaceuticals and crop fertilisers.
“More research is needed to ensure no hazards are introduced into the food supply”
“Yellow mealworms and superworms can also degrade materials like styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene as well as polyethylene. More research is needed to show the safety aspects of using insects for animal feed or even for frass, excrement from the digestive system of insects, after rearing them on diverse waste materials.
“In addition, contaminants can be excreted and may end up in the soil when frass is applied as a fertiliser. This is especially true under circumstances where insects are raised for waste management and their frass is collected for use in agriculture. More research is needed to ensure that no food safety hazards are inadvertently introduced into the food supply this way.”
The report says, “Insects might carry biological and chemical contaminants as well as physical hazards that can be detrimental to the health of consumers. These food safety hazards are associated with the direct or indirect, via animal feed, consumption of insects.”
While insects themselves are considered harmless to humans and animals, they can carry microorganisms that are detrimental to human and animal health. “The risk of transmitting zoonotic infections to humans through edible insects seems low, but this topic requires greater research to clarify the potential risks for food and feed,” the report says.
It says a qualitative risk assessment of potentially feeding locally sourced cricket powder to undernourished infants and children, aged six to 23 months, was reported on 2018. Boiling the porridge, fortified with cricket powder, for five minutes prior to consumption reduced the risk. The authors suggested that many of these microbiological risks can be mitigated if crickets are reared and processed under hygienic conditions.
To reduce the transmission of foodborne pathogens to humans through insect consumption, it is important for insect farms to have strong biosecurity measures and to prevent contact with livestock animals.
“Insects on livestock farms can carry AMR genes to urban communities”
More research is needed to understand the behaviour of foodborne pathogens in edible insects. Feeding experiments with houseflies showed that ingested bacteria can be excreted for three days post feeding. This shows that the potential for houseflies to spread the bacteria can be high.
And transferring antimicrobial resistance (AMR) genes is also a concern – as they can prevent antibiotics working in sick humans. So the overuse and misuse of antimicrobials in food-producing animals is bad for human health. Evidence suggests that insects commonly found on livestock farms can act as vehicles for bacteria that carry AMR genes between farms and urban communities.
The report also says, “Historically, communities across the globe have addressed periodic locust swarms that devastated crops in the region by turning them into food, in times of severe food scarcity, or as animal feed.
“However, such outbreaks are being increasingly managed with pesticides, for instance large scale pesticide usage to control the recent desert locust swarms in the greater Horn of Africa region, the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia. Such measures can make these insects unsafe for consumption by humans or animals.”
And insects can produce noxious substances that stop humans from absorbing nutrition. Anti-nutritional substances in insects include thiaminase, phytic acid, and tannins.
“Discussions about international standards have been limited at the Codex level”
Seasonal ataxia in Nigeria is due to eating roasted larvae as an alternative protein source, mainly in the western part of the country. These symptoms are often treated with high doses of thiamine.
The report says discussions about international standards for the edible insect sector have been limited at the Codex Alimentarius level, the benchmark for food safety for the World Trade Organization.
In Europe, though, all insect-based products for human consumption fall under novel food regulation. The European Food Safety Authority approved its first insect for consumption just this year. It found that thermally dried yellow mealworm larvae were safe for human consumption, in whole form and as a powder. This was in response to an application by Agronutris, a French insect production company.
In the European Union, farmed insects have the status of farmed animals, so they are subject to the same regulations on health and biosecurity. It means insects meant as food cannot be reared on waste streams including meat and fish or manure.
To prevent issues related to spongiform encephalopathies, or mad cow disease, processed animal proteins, blood products, gelatine, collagen, hydrolysed proteins of animal origin, cannot be used for farming insects.