Worms, crickets and the like are showing up at fine European eateries. But this is not just a gastronomical fad, as population growth means finding new sources of protein in unlikely critters.
PARIS — Entomophagy — the consumption of insects as food — is on the rise in Europe. Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Copenhagen have all embraced the trend, and now insects have one (feeble) leg on the plates of Parisians in particular and the French in general. In mid-October, a Paris bar began serving grasshoppers, worms and other bugs. On the Mediterranean coast, in Nice, Michelin-starred chef David Faure has launched a brand new and somehow disconcerting menu featuring fried foie gras with crunchy crickets.
Until recently, the consumption of insects on the old continent was limited to a very few. But it has spread lately, now reaching a much larger public. Hoping to push the trend forward still, food experts are organizing themselves. The International Insect Center, an organization of 15 companies and universities, was opened recently in the Netherlands to advance the production and use of insects for human and animal consumption.
“We are creating a European industry for insects,” says an enthusiastic Cédric Auriol. It’s still a niche market, but it’s developing fast.” Since 2011, the businessman has been heading a startup from Toulouse called Micronutris that claims to be the only company in Europe to produce insects for the sole purpose of human alimentation. Crickets and mealworms are grown in a 650-square-meter facility and reach maturity in eight to 12 weeks.
The company has grown quickly and plans to continue. While it currently produces one ton of insects every month, it expects to reach 10 tons a month next year. “For now, we only sell to the restaurant in Nice and on the Internet,” Auriol says. “But we are about to sign new contracts, and we should be selling energy bars made out of insect flour to supermarkets by the end of the year.”
A critical food source
Afton Halloran, a consultant for the Edible Insects Program at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, says this movement isn’t just some gastronomical flight of fancy. “What’s at stake is to be able to feed nine billion inhabitants on the planet in 2050 and to be able to face the demand of protein, which is supposed to double.” Her agency estimates there are 1,900 edible insect species and encourages entomophagy to fight world hunger. There are many advantages to this “mini-cattle.” Not only do insects have higher protein and mineral content than meat, but raising them also requires fewer resources. Producing one kilo of beef requires eight kilos of food, but you just need two kilos to produce the same amount of insects.
In which case, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization says that traditional farmed animals should also be eating these little creatures. Two European research programs are already working on the matter. One of them, a project called Désirable, a group of nine state-owned laboratories and two companies with a budget of one million euros ($1.37 million), was launched in January to develop an insect refinery. The goal is to produce flours and nutrients made out of mealworms and black soldier flies by the end of 2016. These would then be used to feed fish and chicken.
“Nobody has yet been able to produce insects on an industrial scale,” says Jean-Gabriel Levon, co-founder and head of Ynsect, one of the two companies involved in the project. “We first need to understand better their physiology and their needs, as well as master automatization.” Samir Mezdour, researcher for AgroParisTech and one of the project’s coordinators, goes further: “The goal is to find out whether this kind of production is technically feasible and, more importantly, whether it is economically profitable.”
Indeed, bugs are expensive — between 500 and 1,000 euros per kilo ($680-$1,360). Restaurant owners won‘t be getting rich from their insect dishes anytime soon. David Faure sells his “alternative food” menu for 59 euros ($80), “with almost no gross profit.” As for the start-up Micronutritis, Cédric Auriol admits that his turnover is marginal, just enough to “pay for the research and development.”
But the main constraint to eating insects is neither price nor a skeptical public still unfamiliar with the product. The biggest problem is the legal grey area. According to European regulations, new human food sources must be assessed by the member states and by the European Food Safety Authority before they are allowed to be sold. That is unless it can be proven that the consumption of insects was significant before 1997. In that case, there’s no need to obtain authorization.
But to this day, there is no such proof, and no authorization has been given either. “We are debating on the law’s field of application. A new text is being drafted,” the European Commission explains. As for the introduction of insects in animal food, the regulation on meat and bonemeal excludes it, except for fish. The legislation is currently being revised.
In France, in the absence of specific legislation, the same doubts prevail. The Agriculture Ministry acknowledges that “selling insects for human consumption is not authorized but tolerated.” Cédric Auriol and David Faure are both making the most of the situation, and hoping to have the last bite.