UK’s fledgling edible insect sector in jeopardy after Brexit

Legal changes triggered by Brexit are putting the UK’s fledgling edible insect sector in jeopardy.

Before Brexit, all edible insect companies operated under transitional measures set out in the EU’s “novel food” regulation. This allowed insects to be legally farmed and processed for human consumption.

While the novel food regulation has been retained in UK law, transitional measures have not, leaving insect producers in legal limbo.

Getting legal authorisation to operate is likely to cost between £70,000 and £85,000, beyond the financial resources of most British edible insect companies, many of whom are SMEs, especially if their business becomes illegal in the interim.

With their minimal environmental footprint and excellent nutritional profile, insects are seen as a more sustainable form of protein than conventional meat and fish.

For Tiziana Di Costanzo, co-founder of Horizon Insects, an urban insect farm in Ealing, west London, the decision could mean the end of her business. The company is one of seven British SMEs to have received EU funding for the development of the edible insect sector.

“It sounds like a case of the left hand not knowing what the right is doing. Millions of pounds of public funds, for example through Innovate UK, have gone towards the development of insect-based food. Yet, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is now hindering its very development,” she said.

Di Costanzo, who sells her products online to high-end restaurants and also runs insect cooking classes, says the FSA hasn’t indicated whether it planned product recalls.

“We have written to the environment secretary George Eustice, and in the public interest, we would welcome a discussion about this: the fact that more than two billion people regularly consume more than 2,000 species of edible insects should be evidence to review the novel food classification,” she said.

The FSA said it was “conducting its own review into whether the transition measures can continue”. It added: “It remains the case that insects are considered a ‘novel food’ and need to be authorised.”

Many in the industry think it is a missed opportunity to disentangle the sector from onerous rules and to put the UK at the forefront of the insect protein movement.

“We were disappointed to learn that the UK government has adopted the European Commission’s position that insects are ‘novel foods’, which require tests and laboratory analysis and tens of thousands of pounds to prove that products that have been on the market for many years are safe,” said Nick Rousseau, founder and managing director of industry body, Woven Network.

“We would have preferred the UK to have adopted the approach of many other countries in recognising they are ‘traditional foods’ that are presumed safe so long as those farming and working with them follow appropriate hygiene and hazard management practices.”

Dr Tilly Collins, senior fellow at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, agreed: “People have evolved eating insects: they are part of our biological and cultural history; to classify them as ‘novel’ is inconsistent,” she said. “It will prevent us from benefiting from this environmentally superior form of meat.”

There are at least 26 edible insect businesses in the UK, from cricket farms to restaurants, product manufacturers and retailers. According to Meticulous Research, the global edible insect sector will be worth £3.25bn by 2027.