Belgium gives advice on food safety of insects

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Insect

Yellow Mealworm. One of 12 looked at by FASFC. Picture: USDA-ARS-GMPRC Image Database
Yellow Mealworm. One of 12 looked at by FASFC. Picture: USDA-ARS-GMPRC Image Database
Advice on the microbial and chemical safety of insects intended for human consumption has been published by the Belgian food safety agency.  

It seems highly unlikely insects farmed under controlled, hygienic circumstances, would get infected with viral or parasitic pathogens from the farming environment or nutrient medium, said the Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain​ (FASFC or AFSCA in Belgium).

Since it cannot be excluded that pathogenic bacteria (and spores) from the production environment may infect the insects and its consumers, a heating step (minimally blanching, cooking, frying or stir frying) is indispensable before the products are put on to market or consumed, it added.

As far as chemical hazards are concerned, composition and possible defensive secretions need to be assessed for each insect species separately.

After being harvested, the insects can be sold raw, but also dried, ground, pulverized, heated (steamed, cooked, roasted, baked, fried), canned or freeze-dried.

In the search for alternative dietary protein sources, they appear to offer great potential.

However, there are no specific regulations in Belgium or Europe, on breeding and marketing of insects for human consumption, said FASFC’s Scientific Committee and the Superior Health Council.  

Ensuring insects are safe to eat

For cultivation, processing, marketing, and storage of insects and their products, the same health and sanitary rules that apply to conventional foodstuffs must be followed to ensure food safety, it said.

“Even though eating arthropods, such as lobsters, is common in Western Europe and they are considered a delicacy, eating insects is rather uncommon and is often considered strange.

“Nevertheless, insects are also processed into food in certain European regions.

“Examples of this are the cockchaver (May beetle) soup eaten in France and Germany, the local tradition in the North Italian region of Carnia of eating the sweet-tasting crop of Zygaena day moths (and the similar Syntomis) and the casu marzu, a Sardinian cheese containing larvae of the cheese fly.”

Potential microbial, chemical (including allergens) and physical hazards specifically related to the consumption of insects were looked at.

Hazards depend on the species, the cultivation conditions (feed and environment) and subsequent processing, and can largely be controlled by good hygiene and manufacturing practices during breeding and marketing.

The label should contain a warning for a possible allergic reaction of persons allergic to seafood and/or dust mites, said FASFC.

In the available studies a fairly high bacterial count between 105​ to 107​ cfu/g is reported.

Another possible hazard related to the consumption of raw or insufficiently heated insects, is the fact that the consumer may catch a parasitic infection.

Several insects can cause allergic reactions like eczema, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, angioedema and bronchial asthma.

It is also strongly recommended, depending on the insect, to mention on the product label that legs and wings have to be removed before consumption so they do not perforate the intestine.

Insect species assessed

The agency looked at 12 insect species - house cricket, lesser wax moth > wax moth worm, litter beetle > lesser mealworm, buffalo worm > lesser mealworm, Silkmoth > silkworm, greater wax moth > waxworm, banded cricket, field cricket, African migratory locust, American desert locust, yellow meal beetle > yellow mealworm and morio beetle > morio worm.

These correspond to the most frequently available on the Belgian market in 2011.

Insects for human consumption in Europe are covered under novel food regulation, requiring foods not habitually consumed prior to May 1997 to undergo a thorough risk assessment before being commercialised.

Surveys in 2010-11 concluded that insects had not been habitually consumed in Europe and were therefore subject to novel foods approval.

Luxembourg recently said it would not relax novel food laws prohibiting the sale of edible insects​ without specific Commission approval.

The agency made several recommendations for future research including the effect of processing on (micro)biological quality, microbial safety of insects during or after shelf-life noted by the manufacturers and a risk evaluation to verify ‘toxic dose’ of insects that excrete toxins at the stage they are eaten. 

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