Bug fixing the law: Regulation of insects as an alternative protein source
Upcoming changes in EU legislation could signal the breakthrough of insect-based protein in Europe.
Insect-based proteins are one of the most abundant sources of alternative proteins. Up until now, however, the legal framework surrounding insect-based proteins has been very complex, with many regulations being unprepared for the possibility of using insects as both feed for animals and food for human consumption. Upcoming EU legislation will likely bring more clarity.
Two major EU regulations are in the pipeline. First of all, on 1st of July, 2017, the use of insect-based proteins in fish feed will be allowed within the EU through a change to Annex IV of Regulation 999/2001. The regulation was introduced in the wake of the Mad Cow outbreak and Creutzfeld-Jacob diseases that swept through Europe only a few years earlier, which led to heavy and broad restrictions in the contents of animal feed. This meant that the use of insects as a processed animal protein in animal feed was (most likely inadvertently) banned. Although the use of insects in animal feed was later legalized, in principle, by Regulation 1069/2009, controversies remained over the requirement contained in Annex IV of Regulation 999/2001 that animals whose proteins end up in animal feed should be killed in officially registered slaughterhouses. The upcoming regulatory change will now clarify how and to what extent this requirement also applies to insect farming. Although the current regulatory change only affects the aquaculture feed sector, the use of insect-based protein in other forms of animal feed is expected to be legalized within the coming years.
Another upcoming piece of legislation is the Novel Foods Regulation (regulation 2015/2283), which will enter into force on 1st of January, 2018. Even though the previous Novel Foods Regulation did address some forms of insect-based foodstuffs for human consumption, there was uncertainty amongst EU Member States whether the regulation also covered whole insects or preparations made of entire insects (for example, worm paste). In addition to this, there was no harmonized strategy between EU Member States on how to approach insects as a foodstuff, with some countries banning all insect-related foodstuffs, some countries tolerating (i.e. not prosecuting) them, and other countries legalizing several forms of insect foodstuffs. This made the legal environment in the EU very complex to navigate for the insect industry. The new Novel Foods Regulation will harmonize the European approach. Under the new regime, every insect-based foodstuff will have to be given the green light by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), after which it can legally be sold in all EU Member States. Contrary to the procedure under the previous Novel Foods Regulation, this application is generic, meaning that once a specific product is cleared, individual companies do not need to submit an application for the same product. The authorization procedure is expected to take around 18 months on average. For completeness sake, it is worth mentioning that foodstuffs that have been ‘traditionally’ (i.e. before 1997) consumed within the EU do not have to apply for a license and can freely be sold within the EU.
Although the use of insects in aquaculture feed in the EU will be legalized, the use of insects in feed for other animal categories is still banned. The next step seems to be the legalization of insect-based protein for non-ruminant animals (animals with a single stomach, like pig and poultry). Legalization for ruminant animals (animals with multiple stomachs, such as cattle) seems harder to achieve, given the trauma of Mad Cow and Creutzfeld-Jacob crisis.
In the United States, policies relating to food safety are normally set by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) if it concerns meat, poultry and eggs, or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for all other categories. Currently, the FDA only mentions insects in the context of the Food Defect Action Levels (FDAL), which set out the acceptable level of defects a product can contain. Insect food producers have to comply with the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), but these are open to interpretation and do not explicitly reference insects. Diversity in regulation of insect foodstuffs at state level adds another layer of complexity. Even though several insect-based food products have been commercialized in the US, the legal uncertainty continues. Unlike in the EU, there does not seem to be a legal initiative on the table in the US to provide some legal clarity.
Other parts of the world, such as Asia and Africa, are traditionally more comfortable with the presence of insects in the food-chain. However, this is not reflected in the law, and the regulation on insects ranges from sparse to non-existent. While local producers of insect-related products might be able to sell their wares on local markets with relative ease, the export to industrialized countries might prove challenging as long as there is no clear legal framework in place.
With regards to international trade in insect-related foodstuffs, it is interesting to take a look at the Codex Alimentarius, an international guideline on food safety developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). As with the US legislation, the codex mentions insects only in the context of impurities or defects to food. Similarly, the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) only references insects as pests. The push for the regulation of insects in these legal instruments has been led by Laos, a country where the inclusion of insects in people and animals’ diets is more common, but has known limited success so far.
Over the past few years, insect use in animal feed and products for human consumption has slowly been growing, and several products have shown commercial viability. However, the industry is stymied by the lack of a clear legal framework and firms operating in this field have done so under significant regulatory uncertainty. The clarification of the regulation in the EU is therefore a welcome development. It will hopefully provide fertile ground for the industry to scale up past the pilot stage, while at the same time drawing the attention of other regulators around the world towards this promising industry.
 For an interesting overview, see: A. Lewis, Review of U.S. State-Level Entomophagy Regulation 2015, https://3fxgnc3uy9ywv72fc3hj7rdd-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ALewis-Article.pdf.