On Wednesday, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced its approval of mealworms for human consumption. The ruling opens the gateway for the growing startup industry around insect protein to tap into a new market.
The EFSA conducted a safety assessment to determine whether there are any risks associated with letting people eat mealworms. The favorable assessment still needs to be confirmed by the European Commission’s Health Directorate General, which will give the final authorization for market approval in the EU.
Nevertheless, this makes mealworms the first bug to receive a positive safety evaluation for human consumption in the world, according to French insect farming startup Ÿnsect – though the EFSA decision doesn’t necessarily make the EU a trailblazer.
“In Asian countries, people already eat insects, but they are not under a ‘novel food’ type of regulation,” Ÿnsect CEO Antoine Hubert tells AFN.
Vietnam’s Cricket One, for example, is making burger patties out of crickets, which it breeds and raises using “highly autonomous,” efficiency-focused technologies. It closed a pre-Series A funding in November 2020.
Although diners in other parts of the world may not be particularly thrilled about the idea of eating insects, the ingredient has gained a lot of traction in the livestock feed and pet food space. Touting the ability to produce protein more efficiently with fewer resources and less acreage, some see the tiny critters as having a very large role in the world’s future protein needs.
Among them is Ÿnsect, which extended its Series C raise to $372 million in October 2020, and claims to be the highest-funded insect farming startup in the game.
“[Human] food is an extension of our strategy: in the framework of our [animal] feed activities, we have carried out studies that can be applied to food with very important effects on health and performance of human beings. This is the case, for example, for athletes or people with diabetes,” Hubert explained.
The new approval for human consumption paves the way for future insect protein applications, particularly when it comes to ‘de-fatted’ ingredients. This is the biggest and most promising human food market segment when it comes to value and volumes, according to Hubert, particularly in sport and health nutrition.
With the new EFSA determination, Ÿnsect plans to conduct more research about the health and nutritional benefits of insects for human food. It’s so bullish on the future of insect protein that it is even throwing all of its in-house data into the ring.
“In order to support the development of the sector, Ÿnsect decided to submit its Novel Food application in 2020 without requesting exclusivity and five years of data protection, so that Ÿnsect’s data can be used by all in the industry once validated,” Hubert said.
The startup is also planning to file a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) request with the US Food and Drug Administration this year. If it receives GRAS status, its insect protein can be blended into food products for human consumption.
Ÿnsect has already capitalized on approvals for insect protein in fish farming and is still waiting for the green light for poultry and pig feed, which it expects to receive this year.
For now, most insect farming startups are focused on targeting the animal feed space – like Washington state’s Beta Hatch, which raised $9.3 million in Series A funding in December 2020. Tunisia’s NextProtein, which targets insect-based feed and fertilizer, raised $11.2 million earlier last year.
Notwithstanding the trade barriers erected as a result of its departure from the EU, the EFSA approval may also be welcome news to the UK government, which recently earmarked $13 million for an industrial insect farm led by startup Entocycle.