The European Food Safety Authority has taken the first step toward approving the use of insects in foods for human consumption under a so-called novel food regulation introduced in January 2018.

In a notice posted by the EFSA in November, it said French food processor SAS EAP Group had submitted a request to the European Commission in 2018 under the new regulation to “place on the market” dried yellow mealworms, with the application then passed to the food safety body’s scientists to assess.

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Now the EFSA said it has completed the first assessment of a “proposed insect-derived food product”, without naming the company, and noted a “large volume of applications” are in the pipeline, including edible insects, herbal products derived from plants, algae-based foods, and non-indigenous fruits.

The EC’s director general will now have the final say to approve the French firm’s application to bring yellow mealworms to market in the EU. 

A spokesperson for the EFSA told just-food the final approvals are down to the EC and EU member states, which take a market decision based on the Authority’s findings, with a fixed nine-month deadline to complete risk assessments.

In a statement from the EFSA yesterday (13 January), Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at the organisation, who coordinated the “first adopted opinion on insects as novel food”, said: “Insects are complex organisms, which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived food products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed.” 

Ververis continued: “Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.”

Meanwhile, the move has been welcomed by another French insect firm, Paris-based Ÿnsect, which is engaged in “natural insect protein and fertiliser production” and has submitted a novel food application to the authorities. It has patented “proprietary technology” to produce mealworms. 

Ÿnsect's CEO Antoine Hubert said: "This breakthrough is a major achievement that rewards the work that has been done for years by the entire European insect industry gathered under the IPIFF umbrella. We hope that this positive assessment will be the first of many."

The IPIFF is a non-profit organisation in the EU representing the "interests of the insect production sector towards EU policy makers, European stakeholders and citizens", its website says. 

Since January 2018, the EFSA has received 156 novel food applications, with 23 currently under a "suitability check" and another 81 are under risk assessment, including 15 in the insect-related category such as dried crickets and grasshoppers, the spokesperson confirmed.

In the insect department, four applications are in the suitability stage, while 11 are in the risk-assessment process.

Some insect-related products are already on the market in Europe, such as cricket bread manufactured by Finland's Fazer Group.

Addressing the disparity between the EFSA applications and products that have launched, the spokesperson said: "The current situation in Europe is fragmented because the previous EU novel foods regulation left some room for national interpretation with regards to insects for food and whether they classified as novel food. 

"Some EU member states considered therefore that whole insects were not covered by the regulations and therefore were allowed to be marketed in those countries. Insects are explicitly mentioned in the new novel food regulation and thus it is clear that also whole insects (and their parts) are to be considered as novel foods. These were allowed to stay in the market until EFSA makes its verdict on their safety." 

Meanwhile, with the UK now outside the EU, insect-based food products and ingredients will need to be approved by the country's Food Standards Agency before they can be put on the market because they are classed as novel foods, a FSA spokesperson informed just-food.

The FSA will be contacting companies with such products already on sale to "discuss the need to apply for authorisation", while all "novel foods approved before the UK left the EU will continue to remain on the market", the spokesperson said.