Class is in session!
The rustling of eager students settling into their seats softened as the lights in the auditorium dimmed. “Let’s set the stage to discuss the U.S. regulation of insect-derived foods,” began Ricardo Carvajal, director at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara. He was about to take us on a journey touching on what is known on the past, current, and possible future of regulatory facts that matter for those of us interested in entomophagy.
It felt like I was in university again… how I wish I could have taken classes about THIS!
Carvajal set the stage by tracing through the regulatory framework that currently shapes our system – the FDA’s Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that gave authority to the U.S. FDA to oversee the safety of food, drugs, and cosmetics. The Federal Trade Commission’s mission to regulate false and misleading advertising. The individual states and their mini-FDC acts that work to protect consumers and combat unfair competition.
Now, where do insects fit in? In the U.S., insects have historically been looked at as filth. Now that we’re trying to categorize them as food, it begs the question – what is “food.” Food currently has both statutory and common sense definitions. Whole food must meet the basic safety requirements – is it ordinarily injurious to health? Substances added to food must meet standards of “reasonable certainty of no harm.” Full regulatory requirements can be found on the FDA’s website here.
Many emerging insect-as-food companies have heard of GRAS status. GRAS stands for “generally recognized as safe.” Carvajal explained that there are two paths to GRAS status. Path one is granted through experience based on common use in food that predates January 1, 1958. Path two is granted through scientific procedures. Carvajal notes that GRAS status is NOT a shortcut.
Also, food generally recognized as safe must be free of contaminants, and there have been many different approaches to ensuring this. Contaminants are defined as poisonous or deleterious substances (these can be chemical or microbiological), filth, or substances unfit for food.
A key approach is the shift we’ve seen in manufacturing towards the prevention of contaminants. An important step in that direction was the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed in 2011. It’s considered the most sweeping reform of our food safety laws in more than 70 years and aims to ensure the U.S. food supply is safe by shifting the focus from responding to contamination to preventing it (Source: FDA). More recently, we have seen a focus on hazard analysis and risk-based preventive controls. These include identifying and evaluating hazards for each food and facility, creating process controls, enforcing sanitation and allergen controls, and creating supplier controls. More information about the FSMA can be found here.
Now, let’s talk labels.
Labeling for edible insect companies is not distinct from labeling for other food companies. The fundamental requirements of food labels are: statement of identity (something that accurately describes what the nature of the product enclosed is); net quantity of contents; name and place of business of manufacturer, packer, or distributor; statement of ingredients; allergen labeling (get this one right); and nutrition labeling.
Once you get beyond the basic labeling requirements, things get interesting. A lot can go wrong. Labeling and advertising claims are often victims to marketing and folly. Health claims are most heavily regulated – these include claims of reduction of risk of disease. It’s easy to walk a dangerous line with health claims that turn food into drugs. Nutrient content claims (think protein) make claims about what nutrients are in products.
Structure function claims are claims about the effect of a substance on a structure and do not need approval. Think: calcium builds strong bones. Organic claims are regulated and are a hot topic right now. What does “organic” actually mean? Can there be organic crickets?
What’s the future looking like?
We still have a lot to learn when it comes to how the regulatory field will shape up around edible insect products. The most important thing we can do as a community is to ensure the safe and transparent handling and production of edible insects. Thankfully, groups like The North American Edible Insect Coalition provide a platform for stakeholders to work together to provide a consolidated voice to encourage the positive regulation of insects as both feed and food.
The initial meeting was at the Eating Insects Detroit conference on May 28, 2016. Robert Nathan Allen, leading the charge, notes the importance of a trade association for the successful growth of the movement. The association will involve players beyond the industry companies, including advocates and researchers.
The goals of this group include:
- More studies concerning insects and food allergies
- More research into automating production and processing methods
- More consumer market research
- Lobbying for clear regulations to be adopted and enforced
- Lobbying for insects to be considered a commodity, and allowing access to subsidies to allow insect products to compete on price point with other proteins
- Conducting concerted marketing and public awareness campaigns to educate the public
As we continue to build the industry, questions around regulations and other variables will grow in complexity. It is up to us to address them mindfully as a group. As they say – a rising tide lifts all boats!