Insects as food: a review of potential hazards and research needs
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News of 09/04/2015
The consumption of insects as food, also known as entomophagy, is a widespread practice in many parts of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America), where it is sometimes an integral part of traditional eating habits. To meet the challenge of feeding the planet in 2030, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has endorsed the large-scale development of insect farming. In preparation for the possible development of these products in Europe or in France, ANSES has conducted a review of current scientific knowledge on the risks of insect consumption. In its opinion, published today, it takes stock of potential insect-borne hazards and of research needs in relation to this issue. As a result of this study, the Agency recommends establishing EU-level lists of edible species and specific regulations for the farming and production of insects and insect-based products, in order to ensure the control of health risks in this area. Furthermore, since insects and many other arthropods (mites, crustaceans, molluscs, etc.) contain allergens in common, ANSES recommends caution for consumers predisposed to allergies.
The consumption of insects as food by humans, also known as entomophagy, is a widespread practice is many parts of the world (Africa, Asia, Latin America), where it is sometimes an integral part of traditional eating habits. FAO considers that "insects supplement the diets of approximately 2 billion people" worldwide, and it has endorsed the large-scale development of insect farming as an answer to the growing concerns of food safety and providing humans with protein.
In Europe, this practice seems to be benefiting from growing popularity and several industry projects and research programmes have supported this new sector, despite the regulations in force (currently undergoing major changes) which raise numerous questions.
Given this background, ANSES has conducted a review of scientific knowledge on this topic, concerning in particular the possible health risks of consuming insects or insect-based products, both as food and feed.
Possible health risks
Like all foods, insects can be a vehicle for certain hazards. These need to be controlled through the establishment of specific standards to reduce any potential risks of their consumption.
These hazards are mainly due to:
- chemical substances (venom, antinutrients, veterinary drugs used in insect farming, pesticides or organic pollutants present in the environment or diet of insects, etc.).
- physical agents (hard parts of insects such as the sting, rostrum, etc.).
- allergens common to all arthropods (mites, crustaceans, molluscs, etc.).
- parasites, viruses, bacteria and their toxins or fungi.
- farming and production conditions, for which specific regulations need to be set in order to ensure the control of health risks.
In addition, and more generally, as for all animal or plant-based foods, edible insects can become unsuitable for human consumption if they are not stored properly.
The Agency's expert assessment work emphasises the need for further research in order to provide a thorough evaluation of the health risks of insect consumption. Furthermore, the development of insect production sectors, from breeding through slaughter, should lead us to consider the issue of animal well-being, which has up to now not been thoroughly explored for most invertebrates.
In this context of uncertainty and insufficient data, the Agency recommends:
- concentrating the research effort on potential sources of hazards;
- establishing EU-level positive and negative lists for different insect species and stages of development that can and cannot be consumed;
- exploring the animal well-being issue for these categories of invertebrates;
- defining a specific regulatory framework for the farming and production conditions of insects and insect-based products which ensures the control of health risks;
- establishing allergy risk prevention measures, both for consumers and in the occupational environment.
Pending the introduction of specific standards and an adequate regulatory framework, ANSES recommends that consumers predisposed to allergies use caution since insects have allergens in common with a number of other arthropods (mites, crustaceans, molluscs, etc.).
In addition to the expert assessment issues specifically linked to the health risk assessment and nutritional benefits of insect consumption, ANSES also wishes to emphasise the importance of gaining further knowledge about the social acceptability of these new types of foods as well as the challenges posed by their development and environmental impact.