New EU ruling might whet huge meals corporations’ urge for food for insect-based fare

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Dried mealworms could help meet the growing global demand for sustainable forms of protein.
Source: Dorling Kindersley: Richard Leeney via Getty Images

A new decision by the European Union could pave the way for large food manufacturers and retailers to offer more insect-based products.

In a report released Jan. 13, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said dried yellow mealworm, the larval form of a beetle, is safe for human consumption. It is the first completed evaluation of a proposed insect-derived food and is part of an EU effort to regulate “novel foods” that are attracting growing interest beyond meat due to globalization, ethnic diversity and the search for more sustainable sources of protein beyond meat.

Several startups make insect-based products, and some retailers already have such items. However, wider rollout – and the more enthusiastic participation of large food companies – has been hampered in part by the lack of EU-wide regulation. This could change now.

“Some major food players have a strong interest, but one of the bottlenecks we face is the lack of an EU stamp that says [insect-derived food] is safe, “said Christophe Derrien, Secretary General of the International Platform on Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF), an umbrella organization that advocates the commercialization of insect-based tariffs.” The latest approval was required as it would allow manufacturers to sell the product “across the EU market” rather than in local niche areas.

Derrien and other supporters argue that insect-based maggots are becoming increasingly popular with consumers, just as plant-based meat substitutes are a common sight in food aisles these days. The IPIFF assumes that the new EU ruling will lead to more extensive marketing of mealworm-based foods by mid-2021.

Several large corporations have nibbled for the first time. In November 2020, Nestlé SA, the world’s largest food company, launched a new line of pet foods, some of which black soldier fly larvae. “We offer a fully nutritious alternative to traditional canine and cat products while caring for the planet’s precious resources by diversifying sources of protein,” said Bernard Meunier, CEO of Nestlé Purina PetCare for Europe, the Middle East and North Africa in one statement.

In 2018, the French supermarket chain Carrefour SA began selling edible insect products from Jimini’s, a French company that offers salted butter-caramel mealworms, cayenne pepper crickets and cocoa locusts. Since then, Jimini’s has announced that its products will also be sold in 650 branches of Kaufland, a German supermarket chain and part of the Schwarz Group, owner of the Lidl Foundation & Co. KG.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc., Canada’s largest packaged meat company, has invested in Entomo Farms, one of the largest human edible insect farms in North America. “We see a long-term role in this form of sustainable protein delivery for both animal and human consumption, as is the case elsewhere in the world,” said Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf, in a 2018 statement.

In the UK, Tesco PLC has teamed up with a company called Entocycle. In October 2020, the biotech company received £ 10 million from the UK government to build an industrial-scale insect farm. The goal is to feed black soldier flies with food waste such as overripe Tesco fruit and then use their larvae to feed animals. As a source of protein, the larvae have a much smaller ecological footprint than conventional sources such as meat, soy or fish meal. Meanwhile, in 2018, its rival J Sainsbury PLC started selling crispy, roasted crickets made by a company called Eat Grub.

There are hurdles, however. For example, EFSA found that some consumers are likely to experience allergic reactions, such as those who are allergic to crustaceans. And during at least 2 Billions of people, mostly in Asia and Africa, eat insects as part of their diet, and many Western consumers are squeamish about turning into crickets.

Still, at least one financial institution predicts that the “yuck factor” can be overcome. “The insect market is still a niche,” Barclays said in a November 2019 report. “However, this space could soon be inundated with small brands disrupting the landscape and acting as catalysts for change in the food industry. We appreciate that Insect Protein market could be valued at up to $ 8 billion by 2030 [based on a compound annual growth rate of 24%]. If the supply and demand factors continue to develop favorably, as in the vegetable region, this forecast could be conservative. “

A major driving force could be the large gap between the world’s growing demand for meat and the increasing challenge of ensuring adequate protein supplies for future generations. “”There are clear environmental and economic benefits of replacing traditional sources of animal protein with ones that require less feed, produce less waste and cause fewer greenhouse gas emissions, “said Mario Mazzocchi, professor at the University of Bologna, in a published statement by the EFSA.

Europe’s latest position on dried yellow mealworms comes from a request from French company EAP Group Agronutris in early 2018. According to IPIFF, European companies sold 500 tonnes of insect-based food in 2019, including whole insects, insect ingredients and products that incorporate edible insects. The group predicts that production will rise to 260,000 tons by 2030.

“We noticed an increased willingness among consumers to try insect-based foods,” said Derrien. “And that plays in our favor.”