There is a low risk to the public from edible insects sold in the United Kingdom, according to a Food Standards Agency (FSA) assessment.

The risk assessment looked at allergens, microbial, and heavy metal contamination from seven edible insect products currently on the UK market.

These products are lesser mealworm, house cricket, yellow mealworm, banded cricket, desert locust, migratory locust, and black soldier fly. A full exposure assessment was not done because of a lack of consumption data on edible insects in the UK.

The frequency of allergic reactions to edible insects is estimated to be very low as long as products are correctly labeled. The severity of illness reported by consumers is generally low with a mild illness that is normally short in duration.

However, for some people with strong allergic reactions to shellfish, particularly crustaceans, and mites, the severity of the illness has the potential to be high and cause anaphylactic shock. Consumers with allergies to shellfish are expected to minimize their contact with such food if it is labeled.

A 2021 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication gave an overview of various food safety issues that could be associated with edible insects.

Low risk of controls in place
The frequency of exposure to harmful microorganisms or heavy metals was predicted by the FSA to be very low.

The severity of illness from edible insects contaminated with microorganisms or heavy metals is low. However, illness from exposure to Salmonella and other pathogens can vary from asymptomatic to death in severe cases.

There is no data on the microbial contamination of edible insect products in the UK, because of the limited time they have been on sale.

Evidence from the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) and FSA’s risk profiles showed heavy metals, particularly cadmium and arsenic, are very likely to accumulate in edible insects when fed contaminated substrates. Accumulation potential is also species dependent. 

Estimated risk levels presume that appropriate control measures to reduce microbial and chemical contaminants have been applied, such as heat treatment or labeling. 

Toxic chemicals may accumulate in edible insects from the substrate they feed on or by direct contact with contaminants during rearing. These chemicals can also form through processing after harvesting.

Physical hazards, such as particularly hard or large parts of the insect’s body, can be managed through the removal of these parts.

While not covered in the report, the FSA said it was important to consider consumer acceptance, animal welfare, and trade in wider work on regulating edible insects and the impact on food safety.

Legislation plans
Plans set out by the FSA will be taken forward following a public comment period.

A proposed amendment will enable edible insects to remain on the market in England, Scotland, and Wales where they are the subject of a novel food application made to authorities in Great Britain before Dec. 31, 2023. If agreed by parliament, legal changes will come in by Dec. 31, 2022. 

They would be permitted to be sold until ministers decide on the authorization, or until the process concludes in some other way, for example, it is withdrawn by the applicant. Applications can take up to 17 months for processing.

A total of 315 responses were received during the comment period. These came from seven food businesses and two organizations representing the edible insect and alternative protein industry, two local authorities, two other groups, and 51 people or unrelated businesses. They included the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) and Allergy UK.

Other companies, organizations, and members of the public expressed safety concerns including toxicity, bacterial and parasite contamination, potential allergen risks, and clear labeling for consumer choice. These are factors that will be looked at as part of the process for considering applications for novel food authorizations, said FSA.

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