Research – Looking at edible insects from a food safety perspective. Challenges and opportunities for the sector


The release of the pioneering FAO publication,
Edible insects. Future prospects for food and feed security in 2013 spurred considerable interest in insect farming . While insects have been part of the normal diets of many cultures in various regions through the centuries, the practice is not widespread in the Western world .
However, with growing concerns about the environmental effects of food production, sustainable agriculture is garnering increasing support within our food systems . This has led to an increased interest in using insects as an additional source of nutrition in human food and animal feed, propelling research activities as well as business opportunities worldwide .Until recently edible insects have been collected mainly from the wild but farming insects for human as well as animal consumption is now on the rise .
Their high fecundity, high feed conversion efficiency, and rapid growth rates make insects viable and attractive candidates for farming . In addition, they can be reared in small, modular spaces, making it feasible to raise them in rural as well as urban farm settings .The low carbon, water and ecological footprints associated with insect production, as compared to those of other livestock species, make them attractive from an environmental sustainability standpoint . In general, edible insects are a good source of protein, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, though the nutritional profile is insect species dependent .
This makes them a potential food source for healthy human diets .Insects can also be a nutritionally beneficial and sustainable source of feed for animals . These factors make insects a good prospect to help address food insecurity issues related to a rising global population, without simultaneously harming the environment .

However, the benefits of this emerging food source must be weighed against all possible challenges: for instance, any food safety issues that could pose health threats to consumers . As with other foods, edible insects can also be associated with a number of food safety hazards .
This publication covers some of the major food safety hazards that should be considered, including biological agents (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic) as well as chemical contaminants (pesticides, toxic metals, flame retardants) . Safe and successful insect production must include efforts to prevent, detect, identify and mitigate such food safety concerns . Food safety risks can be higher when insects are harvested from the wild and consumed raw .
Farming insects under controlled hygienic conditions and implementing sanitary processing techniques should reduce some hazards, such as microbiological contamination .An important area of food safety consideration is the quality and safety of the feed or substrates used for rearing insects . The use of raw materials that are alternative to conventional feed are being explored as potential substrates for mass production of insects .Some of these raw materials include food side streams such as food waste, agricultural by-products or manure from livestock farms .
The high nutritional content and low cost of such side streams provide a means to enforce circular economy in the process, in addition to further reducing the environmental footprint and economic costs associated with insect farming . However, as the nutrient content and food safety aspects of reared insects depend on the substrate, further studies and monitoring will be needed to determine the quality and safety of such side streams as well as the insects that are produced .Insects and crustaceans (shrimp, prawns, etc .) belong to the arthropod family . While allergic reactions to shellfish are well-known, the potential allergenic risks associated with consuming edible insects needs further investigation .
Individuals already allergic to crustaceans are particularly vulnerable to developing allergic reactions to edible insects, due to allergen cross-reactivity . The immune systems of shellfish-allergic individuals are sensitized to certain proteins from crustaceans .Recognition of similar proteins in insects upon consumption can trigger the immune system to initiate an allergic reaction .
In addition to cross-reactivity, there is also a risk associated with developing de-novosensitization to yet unidentified allergens from insects . Research in this area must be broadened to gain a better understanding of this risk .Other challenges facing this emerging sector are also discussed in the publication . These include the general absence of insect-specific regulations governing the production and trade of insects as food and feed, issues related to upscaling the production of insects, and overcoming the negative attitude associated with insect consumption among some consumers .


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