Ecology Insects on the plate: EU green light for flour moths

The European Commission has approved the food use of Tenebrio molitor larvae, flour pests that will also begin to infest menus.

As a frequenter of the pantry to a snack, in spite of herself: the mealworm larva, or miller tenebrio (Tenebrio molitor), a pest beetle very common in foodstuffs, could soon land in supermarkets and on European tables. On May 3, 2021, the European Commission, through the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, gave the green light to the marketing of these insects as food: it is the first formal approval for the sale and consumption of an insect. as food in Europe.

The larvae, the only edible form of blackheads, can be used entirely, dried, as a snack or – ironically – in the form of flour, the food of which the beetle is greedy and which is now intended to be interpreted in turn, pulverized and as an ingredient in other food products. Insects identified for human consumption are included in the so-called novel foods, foods that were not consumed to a significant extent in Europe before 15 May 1997 and which require a separate approval process, following a rigorous scientific evaluation by EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority – based in Parma. This organism must express itself on the safety of novel foods for human health, and only in the event of a positive opinion can the food be authorized.

SAFE, BUT BEWARE OF ALLERGIES

EFSA has determined that tenebrione is safe for human consumption in the proposed uses, although it may cause allergic reactions, especially in people with a history of shellfish and mite allergy. In flour moths there may also be allergens given by their main food, that is gluten, and this too will need to be taken into account in a specific labeling that warns against the risk of allergies (food allergies in general concern 2-4% of adult population and 8-9% of children).

THE NEXT STEPS

Meal moths could lead the way to other novel foods of the same class: EFSA is currently examining 11 other requests for assessment for the safety of insects for human consumption. In the coming weeks, the European Commission will adopt a regulation authorizing the use of blackheads as food: these are the final legal steps to allow the French food operator who had requested it, the SAS Eap Group for the subsidiary Micronutris, to enter the produced in European markets.

“After the drafting of the EU regulation, these insects can also be sold in Italy: the positive opinion of the EU applies to everyone, there is no need to wait for the adhesion of every single country”, explains Costanza Jucker, researcher at DeFENS – Department of Science for Food, Nutrition and the Environment – University of Milan. “After that, this authorization is only valid for the company that submitted the dossier to EFSA, specifically Micronutris: in the approved document, the company had to specify the insect breeding system, the diets used, the processing and production methods.” The safety chapter has therefore already been thoroughly investigated, even if «being a new food product, the bibliography on its safety that we have reaches up to a certain point. Microbiological, toxicological and chemical tests have been carried out, but continuous consumption is another thing ».

WHY INSECTS? 

AO considers insects an interesting food alternative for humans and animals, a healthy source of fats, proteins, vitamins, fibers and minerals, nutritious and with little impact on the environment (for the reasons we have discussed here). Given the high environmental cost of traditional livestock farming, population growth and middle-class demand for animal protein should be considered more sustainable alternatives, and the Horizon Europe program makes insect-based nutrition a research area. key. In short, it seems that we will have to start considering even less conventional dishes.

THE NODE OF SUSTAINABILITY

 “As researchers we are working to understand whether insect farms for human consumption are actually sustainable”, says Jucker: “with the MAIC project – Edible Insects Breeding Model – funded by the CARIPLO Foundation and in collaboration with the University of Milan, Center for Sustainable Development, University of Turin and Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of the Venezie (IZSVe), we are studying the breeding of the cricket, the Acheta domesticus, for human consumption on substrates consisting of by-products of the agri-food industry, possibly not including further reuse. “

ORGANIC SUBSTRATES 

are the material basis on which insects are raised, and which also serves as food. The challenge is to find substrates that are inexpensive and are neither in competition with other uses nor contaminated with substances that are potentially toxic or harmful to human food, since they should be obtained from the treatment of organic waste. ‘Currently, farmed insects are fed either chicken feed or other low-cost ingredients that aren’t real waste. The cost of breeding consequently rises, and it is difficult to open the doors to massive consumption. However, there are sectors where a niche market will work more, I am thinking of protein foods for athletes, pastas with highly nutritious insect flours. “

INSECTS IN THE PLATE: WE ARE READY FOR IT? 

According to a survey by Coldiretti (the Italian farmers confederation) / people consider insects to be foreign to the national food culture and would never bring Tenebrio molitor larvae to the table. Beyond the opposition of Italians to a product far from our culinary culture, “the arrival of insects on the tables raises specific health and health questions to which it is necessary to give answers, clarifying the production methods and the origin itself and traceability, considering that most of the new products come from non-EU countries, such as China or Thailand, for years at the top of the rankings for the number of food alarms ».

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