Lesser mealworms and house crickets are back on the menu in the UK, several years after an accidental consequence of the country leaving the European Union meant British companies were no longer allowed to sell them.
The United Nations says that the market for edible insects could be worth $6.3 billion (£4.6 billion) by 2030, and 2 billion people already eat them around the globe as part of their diet.
A growing British industry was ready to help feed the nation. That was, until Brexit, and the UK government said that edible bugs no longer had any laws regulating their consumption.
Members of the UK’s edible insects industry have now been vindicated after the government admitted it shouldn’t have told them to stop selling bugs post-Brexit. But companies are also worried that new guidance will still prevent them from innovating.
Last month, the Food Standards Agency announced that it had been “incorrect” to have said back in August 2021 that the UK was not operating under transitional measures after leaving the European Union when it came to novel foods regulation – leaving British companies incapable of getting authorisation for their edible insects.
“Novel food” regulation, introduced by the EU in 2017, required each new insect to pass onerous risk assessments that include a dossier that costs €85,000-100,000 per insect species. When the UK finally left the EU, many existing EU rules were copied and pasted into British law, but without the transitional measures that were there in the meantime to support businesses through this new legislation.
It left companies like Horizon Insects, based in London, being told by their local authority to stop producing insects and being refused by insurers, and so they had to cull 100 kilograms of mealworms and stop sales, as well as talks in schools. Other companies who weren’t told directly to stop by their local authorities were often still forced to stop running their edible insects lines or lost contracts with supermarkets due to uncertainty.
Even the government itself appeared to be confused; last year VICE World News reported on how its own research and innovation body hosted a discussion about edible insects as a climate crisis solution at COP26, inviting companies like Horizon Insects to provide catering when it had theoretically been banned from producing food.
“The FSA has now clarified with local authorities that the transitional provision continues to apply in Great Britain. The proposals set out today would allow edible insects to remain on sale if they were marked in the EU or the UK before 1 January 2018,” the FSA said in July as it announced a public consultation into edible insects, which closes this week.
Tiziana di Costanzo, who runs Horizon Insects, has asked whether someone from government will “dutifully resign,” and told VICE World News that using transitional measures from the EU’s novel foods regulation, instead of developing their own legislation post-Brexit that imitates non-EU countries, shows a reluctance to innovate.
“This madness of ‘novel foods’ being applied to insects considering they’ve been eaten for millennia,” she said, “the consultation is too late and riddled with mistakes. Even with this announcement we are still in exactly the same position because the products remain ‘permitted’ but not ‘authorised’ – meaning we are still without insurance and unable to trade.”
Nick Rousseau, founder of the Woven Network that represents the edible insects industry in the UK, said that legal clarity needs to be emphasised so that companies can get insurance again – but that ultimately it’s the novel foods regulation that will inhibit British edible insect makers. “Insects have been proven to be entirely sound and safe,” he said. “Before 2018, edible insects weren’t recognised as novel foods, there was no restriction on their use – they were just a food as long as people followed the right practices and were professional.
“About £6 million of sales were secured which means at least a million people ate them, but because the FSA said they weren’t authorised anymore we’ve seen half of our members decide to shift their operations to non-insect products.”
Rousseau added that the UK is now behind European competitors despite having a high concentration of producers and innovation here. “Half a dozen large operations scaled up and got investment in Europe - we’ve not been able to do that at this stage.”
Insurance difficulties and expensive dossiers aside, the green light from the Food Standards Agency now means that six insect species are back on the table in the UK because they are included in the EU transition agreement: lesser mealworm, house cricket, yellow mealworm, banded or decorated cricket, migratory locust and black soldier fly.
“Our potential to be a European leader has taken a knocking but I think we’re the ones who are the most innovative,” Rousseau said. “We’ve got quite a cosmopolitan market and people are open to new experiences and food compared to lots of traditional countries in Europe. We’ve got a great market for this kind of thing.”