On 3 May 2021, the European Commission’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (“PAFF Committee”) voted in favour of a draft legal act authorising dried yellow mealworm to be placed on the EU market as an approved “novel food”. The authorisation will provide for the product to be sold in whole, dried form or to be used as an ingredient in other foods and is the first authorisation of its kind.
This development is highly topical as sustainability concerns have caused consumers and manufacturers to pay increasing attention to the use of insect protein in food. This has even extended to pet food, with a number of retailers launching insect-based products over recent years (a topic we considered in a recent Law-Now).
Regulation (EU) 2015/2283 on novel foods (the “EU Novel Food Regulation”) is relevant for food businesses seeking to bring innovative foods to the EU market. It outlines the means of authorising foods which were not consumed in the EU to any significant degree before 15 May 1997 and seeks to ensure that such “novel foods” are safe for consumers and properly labelled. A broad range of products fall under the definition of “novel foods”, including insects, algae, innovative plant-based proteins and certain traditional foods from non-EU countries.
The Novel Food Regulation requires the European Commission to establish and update a list of all novel foods which are authorised to be sold in the EU. All authorisations are generic, such that any food business operator can place an authorised novel food onto the market, provided that the conditions of its authorisation (including conditions of use, labelling requirements and specifications) are complied with.
A French insect farming business submitted a novel food authorisation application in 2018 with respect to dried yellow mealworm, the larval form of the insect species Tenebrio molitor. The European Commission requested an opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (“EFSA”) as to whether the proposed novel food would be liable to have an effect on human health.
EFSA’s opinion, published on 13 January 2021, concluded that dried yellow mealworm products do not pose a risk to human health in view of the uses and levels proposed by the applicant but noted that the consumption of this product may potentially lead to allergic reactions, especially for those with pre-existing allergies to crustaceans and dust mites.
Following the publication of EFSA’s opinion, the Novel Food Regulation requires the European Commission to submit a draft implementing act to the PAFF Committee for approval. This draft act serves to include the newly authorised product within the EU list of novel foods. The PAFF Committee voted in favour of the draft Commission Implementing Regulation and once adopted by the European Commission, the dried yellow mealworm will be authorised for use as a novel food. The terms of authorisation will give the applicant an exclusivity period of five years for marketing dried yellow mealworm in the EU. In addition, specific labelling requirements will apply to ensure that information about potential allergens is provided when the mealworm is sold.
This authorisation, once formally adopted by the European Commission, will represent the first time that insect products have received EU-wide approval for human consumption.
This may come as a surprise, as there are already some cases of insect-based foods being sold in the EU. For many years, there was some uncertainty about whether insect products were covered by the old regulatory framework for novel foods and a ruling of the European Court of Justice in October 2020 confirmed that insect products did not require authorisation under the old system. However, insects are explicitly regarded as novel foods under the new Novel Food Regulation. Therefore, to reduce the impact of this broadening of the scope of the authorisation requirement, a transitional period applies during which insect products can remain on the market while their authorisation is pending. As such, there are currently 11 pending authorisations for insect-based novel foods and dried yellow mealworm is the first to obtain approval.
The consumption of insect-based protein could represent an innovative way of meeting the twin objectives of supporting healthy, nutritious diets and ensuring that food systems are sustainable. Alternatives to conventional livestock-based protein will become more important in coming years due to the problems posed by climate change, population growth and increasing demand for protein. There has also been increasing interest in the use of insects in pet food and the British Veterinary Association has even endorsed insect-based pet protein. Insect-based foods represent a highly nutritious alternative which may help to facilitate a shift towards more sustainable consumption patterns. Therefore, this authorisation will have significance insofar as it paves the way for the commercialisation of alternative protein sources in European diets.
Co-authored by Sam Porter.