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FSA flags up potential of purified insect protein

By Jane Byrne , 16-Nov-2011

The use of purified or partially purified insect protein could become commercial viable if a reliable source could be identified, finds new research from the UK’s food safety agency.

But such an ingredient though, reports the Food Standards Agency, would require assessment and authorisation under the novel foods regulation.

Alison Gleadle, director of food safety at the FSA, undertook a review of the development of novel protein sources of food in the UK, and she presented her findings to the FSA Board yesterday. The report notes innovative research taking place in the Netherlands on insect proteins, algal protein, and proteins obtained from plant or animal by-products such as beet protein or bovine collagen.

Her review was triggered by a request from the European Commission to evaluate and report on the current use of insects as food, with the EU regulator saying similar reports from each member state will inform the new novel foods legislative process, with the Commission due to issue a new proposal to kick-start that activity in early 2012.

“In addition to aligning the new regulation with the developments that have taken place in EU food law since 1997, the proposal is likely to correct an anomaly in respect of food consisting of whole animals, such as grubs and insects,” explained the FSA.

The agency is the UK competent authority for novel foods.

Low level of insect consumption

Its investigations reveal that a limited number of edible insect species are available in the UK, primarily advertised as ‘novelty’ foods for curious or adventurous consumers rather than as staple foods.

“Based on our findings it appears that there has been low level of consumption of whole insects for several years, either by certain ethnic groups or as ‘novelty’ products,” commented the FSA.

The agency said it received nine responses to its invite to industry bodies to submit information on insect consumption in the UK, with two insect suppliers provided concrete data on edible insect availability in the country.

The report found that among others, Chinese yellow scorpion, has been sold in the UK since the early 1990s and comes coated in chocolate, in alcohol or in lollies. Another novelty available on the UK market, reports the FSA, are eggs of giant toasted ants, which have been sold in brine since 1996.

Bug-buying

Asked about edible insect sales, Richard Rogers from insect breeder and supplier BugsDirectUK.com told our sister site FoodManufacture.co.uk: “It’s certainly a growing market, and an interesting one, to say the least.”

The bug-buying demographic covered both individuals with a penchant for insects and those buying products for charitable causes, Rogers said.

“It’s been fed by TV series, but equally people travelling abroad and eating what are considered common and garden insects over there.”

The company sourced its bugs, “crickets, scorpions, etc.” from farms in Thailand and across Southeast Asia, which was the main source of products, Rogers said.

He described crickets, meal worms and ants as the firm’s top sellers via Edibleunique.com. More unusual products sold by the firm include chocolate dipped bugs, cricket lollipops and Thai fried giant crickets.

Sustainable nutrition source?

While insects have not traditionally been used for food in the UK or elsewhere in the European Union, it is estimated by the FAO that about 2.5 billion people across the world have diets that routinely include insects.

And the FAO is interested in promoting edible insects as a highly sustainable source of nutrition.

Indeed, Rogers said perceptions of insects in the UK weren’t very different to perceptions of foods such as prawns in other countries, where the latter are considered a little strange.

Safety assessment needed

The FSA reports that, in addition to any questions about the presence of pathogenic microorganisms, the safety assessment of insect protein or other insect products would also have to consider a number of specific safety issues such as:

  • The possible consequences of co-consuming venom from scorpion stings for example that could give rise to serious adverse reactions in humans;
  • The possibility of consuming foreign proteins leading to serious allergic reactions due to increased sensitisation; and
  • The presence of known allergens retained within insects’ digestive tract.

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