Low safety risk for edible insect products, says FSA

Edible insects sold in the UK pose a low risk to the public, according to an assessment by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

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

These products are the small mealworm, house cricket, yellow mealworm, band cricket, desert locust, migratory locust and black soldier fly. A full exposure assessment was not carried out due to a lack of data on consumption of edible insects in the UK.

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

However, for some people with strong allergic reactions to shellfish, especially crustaceans and mites, the severity of the disease can be high and cause anaphylactic shock. Consumers with shellfish allergies are expected to minimize their contact with these foods if they are labelled.

A 2021 publication from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) provided an overview of the 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 has been predicted by the FSA to be very low.

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

There is no data on microbial contamination of insect-based edible products in the UK, due to the limited time they have been available for sale.

Evidence from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and FSA hazard profiles has shown that heavy metals, particularly cadmium and arsenic, are very likely to accumulate in edible insects when they are fed with contaminated substrates. The accumulation potential also depends on the species.

The estimated risk levels assume that appropriate control measures to reduce microbial and chemical contaminants have been applied, such as heat treatment or labelling.

Toxic chemicals can accumulate in edible insects from the substrate on which they feed or through direct contact with contaminants during rearing. These chemicals can also form during post-harvest processing.

Physical hazards, such as particularly hard or bulky parts of the insect’s body, can be managed by removing these parts.

Although not covered in the report, the FSA said it was important to consider consumer acceptance, animal welfare and trade in wider work on edible insect regulation and the impact on food security.

Legislative plans
The plans set out by the FSA will be continued after a public comment period.

A proposed amendment will allow edible insects to remain on the market in England, Scotland and Wales where they are the subject of a novel food application filed with authorities in Great Britain by December 31, 2023. If Parliament accepts it, the legal changes will be come by December 31, 2022.

They would be allowed to be sold until ministers decide on clearance, or until the process ends in some other way, for example, it is withdrawn by the applicant. Applications can take up to 17 months to be processed.

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

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

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