The benefits of edible insects as an emerging food source must be weighed against potential food safety issues, according to the United Nations’ FAO.
While insects have been part of the diets of many cultures in various regions through the centuries, farming of them for human food and animal feed is relatively recent and not widespread in the Western world.
A recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication gives an overview of various food safety issues that could be associated with edible insects.
Recent figures estimate that 2,111 species of insects are consumed in about 140 countries (Jongema, 2017) but upscaling production will be necessary to compete with conventional food and feed sources and bring down the cost.
Safety and allergen risk
Possible food safety hazards for edible insects are biological, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, chemical hazards including mycotoxins, pesticides, heavy metals, antimicrobials, and physical hazards.
The potential for allergenic risks is also covered with the conclusion being that further investigation is needed. Individuals already allergic to crustaceans are particularly vulnerable to reactions to edible insects because of allergen cross-reactivity. There is also a risk associated with developing sensitization to as yet unidentified allergens from insects.
Safety risks of eating insects depend on the species, the environment they are reared in or collected from, what they eat, and production and processing methods. Assessments of food safety hazards will help to establish good hygiene and manufacturing practices, according to the guide.
Previous research found some reported cases of botulism in Africa attributed to insect consumption and histamine toxicity in Thailand linked to eating fried insects.
The FAO said safe insect production must include efforts to prevent, detect, identify and mitigate food safety concerns. Risks can be higher when insects are harvested from the wild and consumed raw. Safety concerns may vary based on whether insects are from the wild or farmed.
Insects are consumed in their entirety and can accumulate contaminants from feed or housing materials. Because of their small size, it can be difficult to decontaminate harvested insects, and any contamination may be carried along the production and processing chain.
Farming insects under controlled hygienic conditions and implementing sanitary processing techniques should reduce some hazards, such as microbiological contamination, according to the report. The analysis finds that further studies on how to safely rear, handle, harvest, process, store, and transport insects and insect-based products are needed.
Precautions should be taken to ensure that insects do not escape from production facilities. Certain species considered for food and feed are also pests and carriers of foodborne diseases such as cockroaches and houseflies. If the insect species being farmed is not endemic to the area and can survive in nature if it escaped, then it is likely to impact the local ecosystem.
Further research is needed to establish shelf-stability and safety of insect-based products used in human food and animal feed. Data on insect consumption by humans will improve understanding of the possible exposure to contaminants, both microbiological and chemical.
There is a general absence of insect-targeted regulations covering production, risk assessment, quality control measures, and commercialization to support the trade of insects as food and feed.
Most countries lack insect-specific legislation, standards, labeling and other regulation to govern the production and commercialization of insects in food and feed supply chains. This lack of such a framework is a major barrier in establishing markets for insects and insect-based products.
The areas where insect consumption is widespread are in places where it is generally a local tradition and is not overly regulated. In some countries where insects are not usually perceived as food or animal feed products, legislation tends to refer to them as pests that contaminate food.
Since January 2018, all insect-based products for human consumption have fallen under EU novel food regulation.
Food uses of edible insects or insect parts are within the oversight of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Edible insects are regarded as non-novel when considered for use as a food or ingredient in Canada. Insect-based pet food is sold on the Canadian market.
Suggestions to overcome public reluctance include communicating the benefits of eating insects or incorporating them into familiar items such as pasta, protein bars and tortilla chips instead of marketing whole insects. Consumers are also turning to online platforms to buy processed edible insects such as powder or flour, which is made from dried and ground insects for use as an ingredient in baked goods.
Developing standardized methods to verify authenticity of insect-based products is another area to consider as mislabeling will impact consumer confidence and could pose allergy risks, according to the report.
Food fraud guide
The FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific also recently published a document on the key aspects of food fraud and measures that authorities can take to stop the problem.
Food fraud is often motivated by profit but some forms can pose a threat to the health of customers. It also negatively impacts consumers’ trust in industry and government agencies. Examples include adding sugar to honey, selling regular beef as Wagyu beef, or injecting shrimp with gel to make them look larger and weigh more.
The guide states that legal interventions combined with the use of technological tools seem to be promising way to combat the issue. The guide gives examples of interventions such as adopting a definition for food fraud and using handheld devices, DNA barcoding and blockchain technology. New challenges to addressing food fraud are also related to the growth of e-commerce of food in the Asia-Pacific region.
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