Insect protein – what are the risks?

Posted on 27 Jun 2023 by The Manufacturer
Partner Content

Insect protein could be the answer to many of the world’s greatest challenges including feeding a growing world population and living sustainably. It is also a high-quality complete protein containing all nine essential amino acids.

With that pedigree, it has the potential to become a staple in everyone’s diets, but it isn’t currently found on supermarket shelves or being served at your preferred restaurant, despite inspects being consumed around the world. Are regulatory issues or risks to blame?

In the UK and EU, insect protein and foods made with insects are considered ‘novel foods’. Novel foods are subject to regulatory authorisation and the manufacturer of the novel food must demonstrate that the food does not present a danger to consumers, their use does not mislead, and the food is not so different from the foods it is intended to replace, i.e. they are not devoid of nutritional content compared to similar foods already on the market. This authorisation can take 18 months or more.

To date, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) who authorise novel foods in the UK have not authorised any insects or insect protein products, however an application for the authorisation of house crickets was submitted by a company in 2022. This has prompted the FSA to consider the risk profile of edible insects.

Their risk profile raises some fascinating issues:

  1. Many people in Great Britain are allergic to crustaceans like shellfish or shrimp. Scientific studies have shown ‘cross reactivity’ between crustaceans and edible insects. The FSA state they will need to carry out further research to fully understand the allergenic potential of edible insects, particularly when introducing a variety of insect species into the diet of a non-sensitised population such as the UK.
  2. Insects can undergo significant changes in their composition throughout their life cycle. For example, their protein content can vary over time meaning that it may be difficult for manufacturers of insect protein products to provide accurate labelling information. This may lead to consumers being misled.
  3. Insects can, like other animals, bio-accumulate toxic compounds and this bioaccumulation may happen at different rates depending on the species. More studies may be required to better characterise the capability of insects to bio-accumulate toxic substances.
  4. Insects may be contaminated with various microbes from bacteria to parasites although this can be countered by using heat-based treatments.

As with any food, eating insects or consuming insect protein generally is not risk free though given the potential benefits of consuming insects, it is likely the FSA will approve several applications in the near future. Once authorisation is granted, the question is whether UK consumers will really swap their beef burgers for their insect cousin – the jury is out.

Further information can be found on Novel Foods in the FSA’s helpful guidance on their webpage.

About the author

Conor Wileman | Associate | Browne JacobsonConor Wileman
Browne Jacobson
[email protected]

Conor is a regulatory solicitor in our criminal, compliance and regulatory team. He advises clients on a broad range of regulatory disciplines including health and safety, product safety (including food safety and labelling), fire safety and consumer law across multiple sectors.

Having been a commercial paralegal and then a secondee to Experian plc’s EMEA General Data Protection Regulation remediation project, before qualifying into the regulatory team, he has extensive experience in advising corporate clients on risks, offering practical solutions and capitalising on commercial opportunities. He regularly provides practical advice to company board members and in-house legal teams.

On the contentious side, Conor has experience in defending clients subject to regulatory investigation and prosecution from the Health and Safety Executive, Food Standards Agency, local authorities and fire authorities. He is also a key member of our public inquiries team having supported the team representing a Core Participant on the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.