Federal, state and local regulations
State and local regulations vary by state. As you are using insects as food, follow all of the regulations that govern food production. An overview can be found on the FDA website.
USDA or FDA
On a Federal level, insects used as food fall under FDA oversight. The USDA’s Food and Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) regulates meat, poultry and eggs. Everything else defaults to FDA regulation. FDA regulates sea food (which is most similar to insects …think shrimp and soft shell crab) and even covers game such as venison.
The USDA may be involved in insect farming through their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agency. For example, if you want to import a new species that is not currently in the US, you would need to contact APHIS.
Current Regulations can be applied to Edible Insects
Insects are considered food if that is there intended use. “(f) The term “food” means (1) articles used for food or drink for man or other animals, (2) chewing gum, and (3) articles used for components of any such article.” – US Code – Title 21, Subchapter II – Definitions
The current regulatory frame work for food can be applied to edible insects.
Insects aren’t mention in regulations except in the Food Defect Action Levels. Insects are an unavoidable defect is some agricultural products such as tomatoes. Limits are set as to how much is allowed. This context does not apply when insects are purposefully added as a food ingredient.
There is not a Guidance Documents that addresses concerns specific to insect cuisine. My recommendation is to use the FDA-Seafood guidance documents for insects to ensure that wholesome food is being produced. The FDA has specific regulations for seafood because they are relatively high risk food products. Lobster, crab and shrimp are regulated by FDA-Seafood.
Grasshoppers are the shrimp of the land.
FDA Seafood Guidance documents link – FDA Seafood
FDA response to inquiry
The FDA has a standard response and is included in this Food Navigator article:
If the edible insects market is heating up, and big name retailers from Publix to Sprouts are now stocking cricket bars, snacks and protein powders, why is Whole Foods – which has reportedly temporarily dropped all bug-based products – apparently cooling down?
This article goes beyond the standard response with an additional follow up question. Whole ground insect, sold as is, do not require GRAS!
But there are some other statements that vary slightly. Here is the LINK for the below slides from the director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy (the file is from Ben Guarino’s Inverse article.)
Whole ground insects is pretty clear with the follow up response in Food Navigator but its not clear about using crickets as an ingredient. My understanding is that once cricket powder is added to an industrial food product, as an ingredient, it would require GRAS/additive status.
Additional letters can be found on this post.
Some follow up questions I have from the letters:
- Why don’t they match more consistently in content and language?
- Why must insects be raised specifically for human consumption? Corn is diverted all over the place.
- What is the basis for disallowing wild crafted insects? I feel its no different than trolling for shrimp.
- There is no mention of needing a GRAS determination.
- Whats the definition of ‘Exotic Food’ and why does it matter? This is the first mention of ‘Exotic Food’ I have seen. Its not in any regulations.
How can you legally market insects as food?
Raw Agricultural Commodity (Whole/minimally Processed Insects)
Demonstrating ‘wholesomeness’ is sort of the opposite of adulteration. Note that there is a distinction between inherent substances and added substances when defining adulterated food. That being said, the requirements for whole or minimally process insects are less stringent than when they are added as an ingredient.
- 342. Adulterated food
A food shall be deemed to be adulterated-
(a) Poisonous, insanitary, etc., ingredients
(1) If it bears or contains any poisonous or deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health; but in case the substance is not an added substance such food shall not be considered adulterated under this clause if the quantity of such substance in such food does not ordinarily render it injurious to health.
There is little evidence showing that consuming insects like crickets and meal worms is injurious to health.
Insects Used As An Ingredient
The legal approach to use insects as a food ingredient is by making a GRAS determination.
From the FDA website:
“GRAS” is an acronym for the phrase Generally Recognized As Safe. Under sections 201(s) and 409 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), any substance that is intentionally added to food is a food additive, that is subject to premarket review and approval by FDA, unless the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use, or unless the use of the substance is otherwise excluded from the definition of a food additive.
The routes to make a GRAS determination are 1) self-determination, 2) FDA Notification with ‘No Questions’ response. The scientific and technical standards for GRAS are extremely high regardless if it is a self-determination or if the GRAS notice has been reviewed by the FDA. For example, the Pea Protein Notification below is 57 pages long, contains 6 parts and 15 tables.
There is not an edible insect GRAS notification on file with the FDA. GRAS dossiers are typically created by 3rd party law consultants. FDA’s Guidance.
There may be a different interpretation of the definition of Food Additive. My interpretation is that any ingredient, including whole foods, added to food is a food additive. So even onion powder needs a GRAS dossier? The Food Additives Status List omits ‘obviously safe substances’. Wholes foods such as onion powder would be considered an obviously safe substance and would not need to be on an approved GRAS list. The Food Additives Status List mostly includes ingredients that have a specific technical function. And example of an omitted ingredient would be pumpkin seeds. The argument is that Cricket Powder doesn’t need to be on an approved ingredient list and doesn’t need a GRAS dossier.
Cricket powder is an obviously safe food
Food Safety Hazards for Insects
As for any food ingredient or product, potential hazards must be evaluated and monitored. The standard process is to use HACCP (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points)
Some potential hazards for edible insects:
- Choking Hazard: Arthropods can have long legs that can potentially be a choking hazard. A lot of common foods are choking hazards like hot dogs and popcorn so don’t blow this out of proportion. Bay leaves are a hazard because then can cause splintering and cuts when consumed whole/crushed. Ensure that the particle size is sufficiently small in cricket flour. For whole crickets and grasshoppers, evaluate your supply to on the rigidity and hardness of the exoskeleton. Young cricket exoskeleton is still soft. Most dried crickets fracture and crumble easily and don’t pose a risk.
- Pathogens: Microbiological food safety will be something your company will need to address as you go from start up to and sustainable food business. Its common practice for established food companies to monitor and control yeast, bacteria and fungi. Startups can accept a lot more risk in this area. Companies that purchase cricket flour can leverage their supplier for microbiological information. A baseline measurement is Arobic Plate Count (APC) which indicates the total amount of bacteria present. The logic is that if there are a lot of total bacteria, it is more likely that there will be bad bacteria. For raw crickets, a producer can measure for the presence of pathogens as part of their quality control program. As pathogen testing requires resources, an alternative is to recommend safe handling procedures for raw insects. This is the practice for raw red meat and poultry. More info at Micro Standards Link.
- Environmental Hazards: These are best controlled for via farming. Good feed in will result in good food out. Post-harvest analysis for wild caught can be performed by outside labs such as Certified Laboratories who specialized in doing safety analyses.
- Keep in mind there may be some unforeseen issues such as anti-nutrients, side-effects from high chitin consumption and inherent toxic chemicals.
Are insects a food allergen?
Insects are a potential allergen. Insects are very similar to other arthropods and therefore have similar protein. Research to date has not proved that insects are indeed allergens or that they are cross reactive with shellfish allergens. A costly clinical study is required to prove this. It would be interesting to test cricket flour using a shellfish ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test. While the test would not be definitive it would provide information to help assess the risk from a business standpoint. That being said… insects probably are an allergen even if we can’t prove it. The recommended industry practice is to include an advisory statement such as:
ALLERGY WARNING: Contains Insects (people who are allergic to shellfish may also be allergic to insects)
Current FDA regulations can be applied to insects. Manufacturers that use insects need to have a safety dossier available upon regulatory inspection. Even if it’s not that thorough, something is better than nothing and it shows that you have given it some thought. Follow regulations and best practices that apply to all food products. Include arguments in the dossier that support a GRAS determination. Have documentation and records showing that good, wholesome foods are being produced.
Insects are “new” to our food supply and carry some unknowns about regulation, safety and market growth. It is ultimately a business decision to determine how best to mitigate those risks and grow a new industry.