Insects – Filth or Food?
The EU’s European Food Safety Authority is expected to approve the sale of insects for human consumption in a move which could mean that European grocery stores will soon be lined with the likes of whole or ground mealworms, lesser mealworms, locusts, crickets and grasshoppers. Although insects have not traditionally been regarded as a food in Western cultures, in some parts of the world insects are considered delicacies and cultural staples, and globally more than 2 billion people in over 113 countries eat insects.
The coming century is predicted to bring rapidly rising populations and warming climates that will change the agricultural landscape, and the commercialization of insect consumption has been offered as a means to continue to sustain the global food supply despite these challenges. While insects may be part of the solution to these long-term problems, the immediate challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., including meat shortages resulting from closures of processing facilities, have generated conversation regarding the prospect of edible insects as an alternative source of nutrition. Edible insects are in fact rich in protein and good fats, and high in calcium, iron, and zinc.
Edible insects must however overcome significant hurdles in the U.S. market. Perhaps most importantly, public perception will have to change to view insects as food. Furthermore, while the FDA seems to have tacitly accepted that insects used as food or components of food are “food” as defined in the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (the “FD&C Act”), if regulated as “food,” insects would be subject to the regulatory framework of food generally, including that the food not be adulterated. Since FDA regulation of insects to date has focused on regulating them as “filth,” the presence of which renders a food adulterated under the FD&C Act, such a regulatory framework, which would have to distinguish between insects as food and insects as filth, poses significant challenges that likely will require further guidance from the FDA as more insect based food products become available.