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Are Bugs Really Safe to Eat?

Posted in Food Safety on August 21, 2018

You may have heard by this point that insects are the food of the future. They are not so much a coming trend as they are a sort of inevitability. Mealworms, grasshoppers, and crickets eat next to nothing and pack a huge amount of protein for their size. Their carbon footprint is tiny enough to be statistically negligible. As the atmosphere chokes with greenhouse gas, the planet heats up, and the global food system groans under the weight of millions of new people, insects might start to seem like a logical source of protein.

Granted, not everyone is ready to start munching on crickets for hors d’oeuvres or replacing their whey powder with ground-up mealworms. The bug-eating revolution has not quite arrived yet. But insects are a growing source of food — and one with particular promise in the global south, where calories and nutrients are in short supply for many. Which brings us to the question of the day: are insects safe to eat, and do they bring any unique food safety challenges to the table?

So far, as an article in The New Food Economy pointed out, there is not a regulatory framework in place to deal specifically insects as food in the United States. The European Food Safety Authority has a special category that deals with regulations for novel foodstuffs, which newly conceived foods derived from crickets and mealworms fall under. In the US, by contrast, there is no regulatory category for novel foodstuffs.

That does not mean that the world of insect farming is an unregulated wild west. The United States has decided for the time being to regulate insects as they would any other kind of food. The same rules that apply to raising chickens or cattle apply to raising crickets. The food and water they are fed are held to the same standard as that fed to larger livestock; the rules for slaughtering, packaging, storing and selling them are no different than they would be for a farm animal with a backbone.

Cricket feed and water need to be tested for additives and the presence of heavy metals and other pollutants. So do the crickets; if their bodies contain controlled substances like antibiotics over the legal limit set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), then their meat is considered adulterated and not fit for sale, just like any other animal. In practice, that means that cricket farmers need to be as careful, if not more so, than ranchers raising conventional livestock. Because insects are relatively tiny, even small amounts of substances the federal government considers harmful can adulterate them if present in feed and water.

Interestingly, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has so far indicated that it doesn’t have much interest in regulating edible insects. The USDA is the organization that sets the rules for beef, poultry, catfish, dairy, and most other products from livestock in the United States. That means that insects fall instead under the purview the FDA, and will be regulated by their rules. According to the article in The New Food Economy, the USDA is not completely disengaged, and has been providing the certified organic label for some cricket farms.

The question of whether a new food is regulated by the FDA or the USDA can determine quite a bit. Just as the fight over whether cell-cultured meat should be regulated by the USDA or not; cattlemen looking to squash the threat of steaks grown in a lab could not decide whether to bring the cell-cultured meat under the purview of the USDA, where (cattleman hope) the nascent industry could be strangled by onerous regulations, or to leave it out in the cold for the FDA to regulate by saying that it wasn’t actually meat and thus not the USDA’s problem – the hope being that by denying the meat-like qualities of cell-cultured animal products and getting the government to declare that they were not meat, they could encourage consumers to stick to more traditional hamburgers.

None of that is playing out yet with edible insects. The USDA’s deference might come from the hope that by ignoring the critters they can keep them in the shadows; by not regulating the bugs, they can avoid legitimizing them as a competitor to traditional meats. That might work for the time being. Insects have such a low overhead, however, that they are much more cost effective to raise in terms of inputs and protein yielded per pound than beef. They may rise as a competitor to bacon yet.

The main barrier to crickets is social: for many of us, the idea of eating bugs is a bit gross. It doesn’t matter that they are regulated by the FDA, or that they are one of the most efficient ways to get calories from next to nothing; crickets have legs and crunchy shells and antennae that seem like they would tickle the back of the throat on their way down. That’s not exactly an appetizing thought.

Beyond their grossness, however, insects seem to be (for the time being) safe. Much remains to be seen about how effectively they’ll be regulated – in a couple years, Make Food Safe might be running articles about salmonella outbreaks linked back to blocks of mealworm protein. Just like with any other food, the safety of insects for eating is tied up in what they are fed, the environment they are raised in, and the conditions in which they are processed and packaged. If the edible insect industry expands, it is likely that some farmers will cut corners to get the edge on their competition, and that those cut corners will inevitably get people sick, attracting rebukes from the FDA and headlines from food safety news outlets like this one.

Until then, however, just remember that there’s nothing inherently dangerous to your health about eating crickets or mealworms. So, close your eyes, hold your nose, and open up! The culinary future is upon us, and it looks like it might have six legs.