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Small insects – Big impact! EU authorises insects as food

Following the European Commission’s decision to approve mealworms as the first insect as food in the European Union, Rafael Perez, team leader for Novel foods at DG SANTE, discusses the move to expand the dietary choices of EU consumers, the growing role that insects will play as part of a healthier, more sustainable diet, as well as the benefits for the environment for years to come.

Why are insects being authorised as food? 

Following recent authorisation, mealworms are now considered as a ‘novel food’, any food that has not been widely consumed by people in the EU before 15 May 1997, when the first Regulation on novel food came into force.  

A stringent scientific assessment that was carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) led Member States to give the Commission the go-ahead to allow a food business operator, who had applied for this authorisation, to place the product on the EU market.  

The Commission then adopted the legal act on 1 June 2021. 

Of course, it is up to consumers to decide whether they want to eat insects or not, but consuming insects is nothing new as they already are included in diets in many parts of the world. 

 

Are insects as food safe?  

Yes. Novel Foods can only be authorised if they pose no risk to human health. Following an application by the company SAS EAP Group, the product went through a stringent scientific assessment by EFSA, which concluded that yellow mealworm is safe. 

I would like to stress that these newly authorised food are subject to EU rules governing the labelling of allergens, which identify a list of 14 allergens that need to be labelled such as eggs, milk, fish, crustaceans and now insects. Such rules grant people living with food allergies more power to make informed decisions and avoid products that contain ingredients to which they are sensitive. 

For general health issues, such as food allergies, EFSA concluded that consumption of the yellow mealworm could potentially lead to allergic reactions, especially for those with pre-existing allergies to crustaceans and dust mites. However, such incidences remain very low. 

  

How will consumers know if insects are contained in their food?  

The draft legal act lays out the labelling requirements for foodstuffs that will contain the Novel Food. This requirement is in addition to the requirements of the labelling regulation.  

In short, consumers can have confidence that once these products appear on our supermarket shelves, they will be clearly labelled, informing the consumer of the exact contents of their purchases. The EU is steadfast in its commitment to transparency.  

  

How do insects in food and feed contribute to the sustainability of the food system?  

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), insects as food will play a leading role in facing the many issues that we are and will continue to face in the 21st century. These include the rising cost of animal protein, food insecurity, environmental pressures, population growth and increasing demand for protein among the middle classes.  

Thanks to insects’ abundance in our world, their high-protein and nutritious properties represent less than 1% of the carbon footprint of livestock and are the ideal dietary alternative,  facilitating the shift towards healthy and sustainable diets, and positively contributing not only to our health but also that of our environment and therefore our future. 

  

What are the next steps in this area? 

According to FAO, over 1900 insect species have reportedly been used as food in the world. As for mealworms, the Commission has received several applications for the authorisation of other insect species such as Alphitobius diaperinus larvae (lesser mealworm), Gryllodes sigillatus (tropical house cricket), Acheta domesticus (house cricket), Locusta migratoria (migratory locust) and Hermetia illucens larvae (Black soldier fly) under the novel food regulation.  

To date, the Commission has considered 11 applications as valid and a safety evaluation by EFSA is being performed for each of them. As soon as a positive opinion is delivered by EFSA, the Commission will proceed with the authorisation process.  

In the coming years, insect species authorised under the novel food regulation will become an ever-more important source of alternative protein which will contribute to the Farm to Fork Strategy’s goals for a sustainable food system in the EU and in the world.