Industry fears future of edible insects as Brexit leaves trade in legal limbo

25 January 2022 by

A deadlock over the legality of trading insects has forced operators to remove critters from their menus

Edible insect suppliers are facing financial ruin more than a year after Brexit left them unable to trade, with the administrative deadlock likely to continue for the rest of 2022.

The end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020 invalidated applications for the sale of edible insects, classed as novel foods under EU law.

The result is that for more than a year, suppliers and operators have been left in legal limbo as the trading of edible insects – which are seen as a sustainable alternative to protein derived from meat and fish – has in effect been banned.

To resume trade in Great Britain (trade in Northern Ireland is still allowed due to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which sees EU regulations adhered to) suppliers must submit new applications to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which has yet to authorise any edible insect products for sale.

Businesses – many of which are SMEs – have to make applications based on each insect they are producing. While applications are free to submit, costs arise from gathering the scientific evidence needed for the FSA to make an informed decision. The FSA estimates results of applications will take at least a year.

The only insect currently authorised under the UK's novel food act is the cheese mite (used in the production of German cheese Milbenkäse), which in line with the law has a "history of consumption" in the UK or EU before May 1997 and is therefore permitted.

But the likes of grasshoppers, crickets, ants, termites and grubs are not currently authorised to be sold in the UK, which has resulted in operators running out of stock and having to change their menus.

Holy guacamole

Edson Diaz-Fuentes (inset), chef and co-founder of Mexican restaurant Santo Remedio in London Bridge and Santo Remedio Café in Shoreditch, has removed grasshoppers from his menu after discovering he could not legally purchase any more stock just before Christmas.

"I don't really want to take them off the menu, however my supplier is unable to sell at all, so I have no choice other than to reprint the menus. It's the very first time in the history of Santa Remedio we won't be able to offer grasshoppers," said the chef, whose classic guacamole made from smashed avocado, coriander, jalapeño and lime and served with blue and yellow corn tortilla chips, sells for £7.50. Optional grasshoppers sautéed with lime and chilli were offered to diners for an extra £1.

"Our classic guacamole is an iconic thing to serve the grasshoppers on – it's a staple from central Mexico. Insects are generally eaten in Mexico, so it's a shame, I was very proud to keep something that was indigenous to our culture on the menu."

Diaz-Fuentes said being able to serve insects at his restaurants allowed him to play a part in preserving the culture of his homeland: "These are delicacies. Chefs always want to highlight the true flavours of the place we belong to. It's not just about the sauces and the corn. [Insects] are not just sustainable, they're part of our palette and we won't be able to use them for how long?"

Andy Holcroft, chef-owner of Grub Kitchen, was disappointed to have confirmation from his local authority environmental health department in late November 2021 that the advice was to stop serving insects at his restaurant in west Wales.

He has had to completely change his menu to mostly plant-based dishes from an insect-led offering. "We are about changing public perceptions around eating insects and normalising it," he said, noting how he hopes once legislation has been approved by the FSA it will build more consumer confidence in insects as a food source.

"I'm not going to lie, it was disappointing. The first week or two felt like the wind going out of our sails, especially going into Christmas with the Omicron variant impacting our trade. But I'm passionate about using food that has the least impact on the environment and we haven't stopped trading at all. We've carried on without insects, which is a shame as it's our big USP, but it's about making customers aware, and as soon as we can we'll be back on it."

Brexit red tape

Tiziana di Constanzo (inset) co-founder of West London-based business Horizon Insects, which farms meal worms and also distributes crickets and cricket powder, has had to cease trading.

Constanzo spent much of last year trying to seek clarification from the FSA, but in November 2021 her insurance expired and her local authority confirmed that her products couldn't be on the market. At that point sales immediately stopped, and the company even had to decline supplying insects to an event hosted by Innovate UK at the COP26 summit.

"Our business has been completely destroyed by this. I feel saddened and distraught that this has happened because this is something we were doing for the love of the environment to really make a difference," said Constanzo, who has not yet submitted an application to the FSA due to the high costs associated with laboratory testing needed to demonstrate insect toxicity levels.

Speaking to The Caterer, a spokesperson for the FSA said it was encouraging organisations to join together to "work collaboratively in addressing obstacles and streamlining the existing regulated products process where possible".

The FSA said: "We are aware that edible insects, as part of the alternative proteins market, can offer benefits, most notably for the environment. As they are novel foods they need to be authorised to continue being sold in the UK, and therefore are subject to a risk assessment which ensures they are safe to eat. We are working hard to support and advise businesses and trade bodies so that they can provide high-quality dossiers and evidence as part of their novel foods applications."

Hop along

Hurdles are also being faced by a supplier of cricket-based sports nutrition products Hop, which has had to pause production while it attempts to navigate the complicated regulations.

Geoffrey Knott, managing director and co-founder of Hop, started his business while at university and was hoping to turn the venture into a full-time career: "This has stopped us in our tracks. It's hard to start a business anyway and this is demotivating and depressing. Now the focus is working with the UK government to reform or abolish the existing rules that are blocking sales."

Knott told The Caterer he is currently working with other UK edible insect start-ups through the Woven UK Network for Insects as Food & Feed group, to pool resources to get costly applications to the FSA. He has submitted one application to the FSA on 10 December 2021 for house crickets at a cost of around £7,000 to his business, which would have been much higher without other companies working together.

"The review process could take 12, 18, 24 months, nobody really knows," said Knott. "What does a business do during this time, wait and die? No, we want to organise a transition agreement with the FSA (which is what is happening in Europe) so we can still sell and grow our business while the FSA are reviewing. This is a niche emerging industry and the EU regulation is killing it in its infancy – places are shutting down and we're at risk of being surpassed by non-UK players"

The FSA told The Caterer it has received four potential edible insect applications to date, but no application has progressed beyond initial validation assessments. The department is currently conducting its own review into whether interim transitionary measures can be offered to GB start-ups to allow them time to "submit good quality applications".

Ironically, new research from the FSA states 26% of UK consumers are willing to try edible insects as an alternative source of protein, yet hold-ups from the department and high entry costs means UK suppliers are currently unable to trade in these so-called novel foods.

It's a bugs life

Native restaurant at Browns department store has always had ants on its menu, according to chef Ivan Tisdall-Downes.

He can't be sure whether recent struggles to get hold of his usual formica ants – more commonly known as wood ants – are down to seasonality or Brexit red tape, but he hopes it gets resolved as quickly as possible.

"Insects take the pressure off the food system and they're an alternative protein. I think they're going to play a more important role for us in the future and the sooner all of this is sorted out, the better," he said.

Tisdall-Downes typically pays £700 per kilo for his UK-foraged ants, which he notes is more expensive than a lot of truffles. He said they keep well in the freezer, and he typically uses them on desserts. "We like to showcase unusual ingredients you can get in the UK and we were trying to find a replacement for lemon. The ants contain formic acid, which provides a lemony, sometimes grapefruit-like flavour."

While he has also sampled crickets and grasshoppers Tisdall-Downes believes the texture of these products are more difficult for consumers to overcome. Ants are a great starting point for those new to eating insects, while also adding flavour to a dish.

As well as fudge and a yogurt-based ice-cream, he has experimented with adding ants to a lavender granita, as well as laying them around the rim of a margarita glass in lieu of salt. "It can be a bit hit and miss," he said. "But they have a wow factor and it makes culinary sense."

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