Businesses wanting to sell bugs as food in the UK have warned they are in limbo because of post-Brexit trade law confusion.
Ministers have been pressed to update food standards law to stop British traders falling behind their EU counterparts because of a lack of transition arrangements after Brexit, amid concerns some could be shut down.
The growing industry includes frontline food shops, meal delivery kit companies, and suppliers to major supermarkets, and has made an estimated £6 million revenue over the last decade.
The Woven Network, a trade body representing edible insect businesses, hopes that a decision from the Food Standards Agency in June will give them blanket approval to trade across the UK.
But until then they lie in limbo, with local food standards officials able to prevent companies from selling bug-based produce if they believe it is not safe to eat.
Maisie Paddon – who had hoped to sell insect based burgers, sausages and curries through her company Be Bugs at the Glastonbury Festival this year – believes this contributed to her inability to trade at the world-renowned music event, where competition for food stalls is high.
“We’ve got a five-star hygiene rating, which is great. But, of course we weren’t surprised when we got our response from Glastonbury,” the Woven Network member told the PA news agency.
“They had to contact my local authority, and they (the council) were of the understanding that insects are illegal.”
Aaron Thomas, who runs meal kit delivery company Yum Bug from north London, added: “There is always a risk that we will be shut down.
“We’ve only just had an inspection from our local Environmental Health Officer but… they might have a conversation with a different EHO or someone more senior in their office, that maybe has a different opinion on insects in general, maybe they haven’t had as much experience and they tell them ‘Actually no, I think you should be shutting the company down’.”
Difficulties for edible insect traders began in 2018 when the EU introduced food regulations classing edible insects as a “novel food”, meaning that they had to undergo new safety checks, including in the UK.
Temporary arrangements were discussed by the bloc to allow the traders to sell their bug-based foods while permanent trading applications were made.
But when the UK officially left the EU in early 2020, no transition for edible insects had been agreed, and while traders on the continent have since been given the green light, UK traders have not.
A decision from the Food Standards Agency which may allow them to trade across the UK on a temporary basis is expected in June.
The Woven Network is also applying for permanent approval to sell food containing crickets and mealworms, and have been working with the European edible insect industry to provide evidence that they are safe.
But assessing these applications could take up to 18 months.
Mr Thomas added: “What we’re hoping to see now is for the Government to implement a new transitional measure that basically doesn’t stop us from trading the species that we’re currently trading until a decision is made.”
Unlike the edible insect industry, a transition was agreed for some CBD-based products classed as “novel foods” to bought and sold under UK law.
Prior to the new EU food regulations, people had been able to eat and trade insect products freely in the UK, and were doing so “entirely legitimately over many years”, according to Nick Rousseau, a director of the Woven Network.
He added: “We have total confidence they are safe. The FAO, the global Food and Agriculture Organisation says they’re safe, so long as your farming and product development practices do not introduce contaminants or other risks. So inherently, they’re edible.”
Perez Ochieng, who runs east London-based shop Sacoma Health Foods, added insects were a sustainable, low-carbon source of protein, and a 2013 UN report promoted bugs as a future solution to food scarcity and the climate crisis.
Ms Ochieng said the UK’s ageing population could benefit from the nutrition and high protein content of edible insects.
She added: “These are people who, for example, need high protein nutrition products, and edible insects, for example, are a good ingredient when you’re looking at people who need to build their muscles.”
Labour MP Stephen Timms (East Ham) raised the issue with the Government of a transitional arrangement for edible insects on behalf of Ms Ochieng and her fellow traders.
Mr Timms told PA: “Successful small businesses are in difficulty because, unlike in the European Union, regulation in the UK has been allowed to fall behind. I hope this will quickly be addressed and put right.”
The Government wrote to Mr Timms, telling him that a decision on next steps for the edible insect industry “will be made in due course” by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
Michael Wight, head of food safety policy at the FSA, said: “We are aware that edible insects, as part of the alternative proteins market, can offer benefits, most notably for the environment.”
He added: “We are working hard to support and advise businesses and trade bodies so that they can provide high quality dossiers and evidence as part of their novel foods applications.”