“Insects as a source of food is arousing more and more public interest, so it is important to clarify how safe these foods are,” said BfR vice president, Dr Reiner Wittkowski at the Berlin event last month.
Under European Union food law insects are classed as novel foods and are yet to be approved. They are also being reviewed as feed sources.
The BfR commissioned surveys on the perception of insects on meal plates or in feed troughs. The majority of Germans would accept the use of insects as animal feed, but were more anxious about human consumption.
In theory they agreed with claimed benefits: insects are a sustainable food source, high in protein and micronutrients. But in practice, many Germans would find eating them repulsive (unless, perhaps, processed and unrecognisable).
The population group most open to have-a-go, were educated, urban males aged 18-30.
The profile of these potential ‘entomophagists’ (insect eaters) matches observations reported in a previous study profiling Western consumers ready to consider insects as a plate item.
There, Wim Verbeke PhD, professor in Food Science, Agricultural Economics, Behavioural Economics at Ghent University, observed that males were twice as likely as females to be positive about insect meals, and this attitude was also more likely in those who claimed to have an interest in the environmental impact of food choices.
People familiar with insects as foods in other cultures were twice as ready to consider these as food choices, and people intending to reduce their intakes of red meat were more than four times as likely to declare themselves willing.
Possible industrial breeding of insects in carefully controlled conditions offers an alternative to meat or fish. Insects can be fed on waste materials, and because they are not warm-blooded, their feed utilisation efficiency is much higher than for warm-blooded animals such as cattle, pigs or poultry. Animal welfare and environmental issues are other advantages.
EFSA on insects
In October 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) issued a scientific opinion on possible risks from the production or processing or consumption of insects, compared to animal proteins.
It identified possible hazards, including allergenic and environmental risks, but noted a lack of data on many aspects of safety.
The agency’s overall conclusions were that microbiological hazards were expected to be similar to other feed sources of proteins. In particular, the occurrence of prions – abnormal particles that cause Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans – was not predicted to be a risk.
Up the insect value chain
The International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) is a non-profit organisation of 27 companies operating in the ‘insect value chain’. It takes the lead in Europe in disseminating knowledge to the public, and providing expert consultation on technical and legislative aspects of insects as foods.
Antoine Hubert, IPIFF President, states that, “we believe that insects are part of the solution to the huge challenges posed on food supply because of the growing population.”
EU status under review
Animal proteins, including insects, are not currently permitted in the production of feed in Europe, although in 2013 the rules introduced to protect against BSE in cattle were amended to allow some use of animal proteins in aquaculture.
AgriProtein, a feed manufacturer based in South Africa, obtained a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop protein alternatives from maggots fed on slaughter-house waste. MagMeal is 50% protein, and can be used in place of protein concentrates.