Is the UK bar for insect protein entry too high?

“The acceptance of insects as a viable source of protein is essentially the triumph of science over irrationality,” according to Eduard Tsvetanov, communications and PR manager if International Platform for Food and Feed (IPFF). Insect protein in Europe is at “a turning point of its history”, the IPIFF detailed in its recommendations for policy priorities in its recently published brochure in November 2023​.

In it, the organisation highlights those priorities that it believes are “instrumental in materialising the transition towards more sustainable and resilient food systems”, in line with the ‘EU Farm to Fork’ objectives and European Commission priorities outlined through the recent Communication on ‘Safeguarding food security and reinforcing the resilience of food systems’, released on 23 March 2022.

“Awareness of edible insects is building in the UK and across Europe, which is a prerequisite to establishing demand and the category in the long-term,” Leo Taylor, CEO and co-founder of YumBug, told FoodNavigator. As of the end of 2023, there are six authorised for commercialisation insect novel foods across the EU, while the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published a total of seven positive opinions on said food products, the International Platform of Insects for Food and Feed (IPIFF) confirmed.

“EFSA’s positive nod is critical for the assessment of any food product that is to be commercialised across EU markets,” IPIFF’s Tsvetanov told FoodNavigator.

“While the nascent novel food market is still operating at a relatively small scale production levels, market trends outline a growing interest in insect novel foods,” said Tsvetanov. Yet, the sector remains one affected by significant challenges, from legislative to cultural barriers, that need to be overcome.

Local sourcing pushes acceptance 

“The reason for this is the science-backed evidence that insect-enriched products for both animal feed and human consumption contain high-quality protein that can be locally sourced,” added Tsvetanov. For example, Tsvetanov relayed that insect-based products “drastically reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions required for the transport of protein”.

As a telling sign of European consumers’ increased acceptance towards insect protein, end-consumers from different markets, including France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland or Belgium, for example, identify insect-enriched foods as a positive contribution to their diet. Consumers view insects as a healthy addition to their diets and a sustainable alternative to traditionally grown protein from plants or meat that requires many resources such as water and land.

In the first quarter of 2024, IPIFF will publish its EU Food Market Trend Factsheet, as well as the results of the survey on the EU-wide consumer acceptance of insect-enriched foods, providing data about the growing links between insects and sustainability and subsequent approval of insect protein in Europe. 

Overcoming the ‘yuck factor’

“The biggest challenge the sector faces is fairly simple: it’s the ‘yuck’ factor,” said Tsvetanov. Explaining this is what the IPIFF means by irrationality, Tsvetanov added: “Science is backing the nutritional and environmental claims, and the solution is in front of us.”

Nevertheless, we are human, and our decision-making is rarely based purely on science. Often, end-consumers think of only one insect product: whole insects. Yet, multiple other uses, such as insect-based flour or insect lipids, can be incorporated into food and feed in various ways. In today’s world, almost all are concerned with sustainable practices to prevent manufactured global threats such as climate change. Nevertheless, we instinctively do not wish to adapt agriculture to these challenges.

The global population increases by 67 million every year. This is the total population of the UK. However, Earth’s natural resources, such as land and water, do not increase accordingly. “We need a truly sustainable, circular solution as part of the protein production mix because plants and meat simply cannot address these challenges on their own anymore,” added Tsvetanov.

“We, as a sector, aim for complementation, not substitution,” said Tsvetanov. “The idea is not to replace bacon with insects; rather, it is to ensure that there will be bacon at all,” Tsvetanov continued. IPIFF is, therefore, he suggested, not only advocating for insect farming. It is also advocating for science. 

Legislative endorsement of widespread adoption

Over the past years, the IPIFF has noticed a significant increase in consumer acceptance of insect-enriched products. “This is the result notably of EU policy decisions backed by scientific evidence, as confirmed by EFSA, as well as at the marketing level,” Tsvetanov said. “The journey has only now begun, however,” added Tsvetanov.

There are currently several challenges facing the edible insect industry – a key one being legislation. “There are restrictions on insect species we can sell in the UK, and those we can, such as crickets, haven’t yet received full Novel Food authorisation,” Taylor added.

Yum Bug’s CEO Taylor stated that the brand works with the edible insect industry and the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) to ensure key insect species receive full legislative approval. “Because of this, it is very unlikely applications will be denied – albeit a very costly process in time and money,” said Taylor. “Legislators could simplify the process of approving insects for human consumption,” Taylor noted.

“On the policy side, we expect further progress on EU discussions relating to the approval of new feeding substrates for farmed insects,” Tsvetanov said. More specifically, IPIFF is in dialogue with the European Commission services to explore the possibilities for authorising the use of meat and fish containing former foodstuffs. For example, unsold products from supermarkets and losses from agri-food industries) as feedstock for farmed insects. 

There are two key pieces of EU legislation in 2024: EU animal by-products legislation as set out by Regulation (EU) No 142/2011 ​ and the EU Regulation laying down rules for the prevention, control and eradication of certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (the so-called ‘TSE’ Legislation), highlighted by Regulation (EC) No 999/2001​.

Under the EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, IPIFF strives to include mandatory origin/provenance labelling in insect food products to ensure that the safety, hygiene, and quality of the products offered to consumers are in line with the highest EU standards.

An example of such a legislative piece would be the Food Information to Consumers Regulation. “With such labels, consumers will be able to make a conscious decision about the food products made with insect ingredients they wish to purchase,” said Tsvetanov.

In the same context, other important pieces of legislation targeted for review in 2024 include the EU Marketing Standards for Agricultural Products, which would further reinforce the purpose of mandatory origin/provenance indication in insect food products.

In addition, Tsvetanov added that the EU Promotion Policy for agri-food products is important. Making insect-based products eligible for the EU agri-food promotion policy support measures would allow for developing awareness campaigns that could contribute to the broader consumption of insect food products.

Important policy dossiers addressing insect food products include the Food Information to the Consumers Regulation (Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011​), Review of the EU Marketing Standards for Agricultural Products​, Review of the EU Promotion Policy for agri-food products​ and Legislative Framework for Sustainable Food Systems​.

Manufacturers’ pivotal role in cultural impressions

“Additionally, changing cultural perceptions towards edible insects remains a fundamental challenge,” Taylor said. “We are making good headway on this given the expansion of awareness and access to products on the market,” Taylor added.

For manufacturers and prospective startups looking to enter the insect protein sector, there needs to be a split focus on the present and the future. “When you work in policy and science, you play the long game,” said Tsvetanov.

“The overall measurement of success is not dependent on a single EU Commission dossier, but rather on a myriad of interconnected policies, as well as the reception by end-consumers,” added Tsvetanov. Established manufacturers are well aware of the challenges and opportunities in both food and feed. “So in this sense, their response is one of resilience,” Tsvetanov expressed.

Therefore, the key message for all involved with food science and policy is to work with policymakers and civil society. “Agriculture is undergoing an industrial revolution, and for us to truly lead the way, we need to step up our communications activities,” Tsvetanov added. “In the upcoming years, we expect to see a lot of startup activity in sub-areas of insect farming that play a critical role in supporting the sustainable practices of the sector,” Tsvetanov continued.

To help shift cultural perceptions of edible insects, Yum Bug focuses on “delivering as many great first experiences as possible” through its London-based restaurant and by getting on the menus of the largest restaurant chains in the UK.

Finding manufacturing partners happy to handle edible insects is another challenge affecting the insect protein sector. “Manufacturers could be more open to explore solutions to incorporating insects into their operations,” said Taylor.