The challenges of selling insects in Europe
For Jarrod Goldin, founder of US insect flour supplier Next Millennium Farms, Europe is something of a paradox. “In Europe there’s more interest in exploring the idea of insects for food than in California. I think people are more health and environmental conscious. In those terms Europe is ahead of north America - but the governments and regulatory side of things are holding things back,” he said.
Insects are considered a novel food in Europe and therefore cannot be sold for human consumption - but national legislation can override this and varies from country to country.
Christine Spliid, creator of insect protein bar Crobar, said that such regional and national differences were confusing: “It is definitely a bit disconcerting that one doesn't know when and to what effect the law will change, and everyone you ask has different opinions.”
Gary Bartlett from UK start up Bush Grub, which sells to 34 countries worldwide, said this meant that companies needed to do their research: “You can get the situation where two companies in the same country take different views- one will happily sell the products and one will not. Education of the law is required as attitudes vary considerably.
“For example Belgium has a very strong growing industry, the Netherlands is a leader in insect farming, Luxembourg will not allow edible insects and one part of France is quite happy to sell products whilst another local authority in France will not allow it.”
In the UK insects could be sold as long as they were whole – either in full or powdered – but not if the legs or wings had been removed, he said.
Meanwhile, Leslie Ziegler from US-based Bitty Farms, said the lack of novel food approval simply meant that retail channels were closed - but Europe remained a big destination in terms of online sales.
The legislative situation did create some barriers for Europe-based producers. Bartlett, Spliid and Neil Whippey from UK-based EatGrub all imported their insect flour from the US - even though this went against their eco-friendly ethos – because the relatively few numbers of suppliers in Europe meant prices were high.
But there was a sense that this was temporary. Whippey said: “For lots of farms to pop up there needs to be some kind of market stimulation in the form of products, and that's where we and other entrepreneurs come in.”
But these issues were not enough to put off the entrepreneurs who all said that a change was on the horizon. "[The regulatory situation] is forever moving in the right direction," said Whippey.
Meanwhile Spliid, who raised £10,000 (€14,000) on Kickstarter to launch her start-up, believed growing consumer demand would be the catalyst to spur a change in legislation.
“A couple of years down the line, a substantial amount of people in the EU will have started incorporating insects in foods, both in terms of new companies and brands, restaurants and media coverage. This will all help the push towards making insects in food mainstream, which in turn will influence legislation."
Goldin was even more confident in giving a time-frame: "With the recent announcement by Switzerland to legalize some species of insects for sale, we are optimistic the EU will follow with their ruling at the end of the year."
Such optimism even seems to be shared by the EU itself, which gave nearly €3 million in funding to PROteINSECT, a project investigating the economic viability of insects for human nutrition.