Consumer/Food/Analysis/

How Brexit squashed the UK’s edible bug industry

“We culled all our insects six months ago, and just kept a few for our own consumption.”

By Freya Pratty

A big beetle on toast on a plate. Offer of edible insects - fried cockroach on sandwich toast

Some people get interested in theatre or entrepreneurship at university. Geoff Knott got interested in edible insects. An avid badminton player and rock climber, he heard that the protein in insects would be good fuel for his sporty lifestyle.

“I started developing protein bars made from crickets in my student kitchen and testing them out with people at the local sports centre,” he says. 

Post-university, Knott founded Hop Bar, a startup selling bars made from crickets. Finally, he wasn’t the only one excited about bugs — there was real momentum behind the UK’s nascent edible insect industry. 

Then Brexit happened. And Britain’s bug industry has been left in limbo ever since. 

“Overnight, everything became illegal. We culled all our insects six months ago, and just kept a few for our own consumption”

The UK had previously followed the European Union’s process for approving “novel foods” like insects. After Brexit, that shifted to a process run by the UK’s Food Standards Agency and, because transitional measures hadn’t been put in place, insects that are approved in the EU became suddenly unauthorised in the UK. 

“The bottom line is, overnight, everything became illegal,” says Tiziana Di Costanzo, founder of Horizon Foods, which previously ran mealworm cooking classes. “We culled all our insects six months ago, and just kept a few for our own consumption.”

The roughly 25 edible insect companies in the UK are part of a growing insect industry across Europe — the biggest company in the space, French startup Ynsect, has raised $264m and is valued at $625m. 

Some estimates suggest that the market could be worth $8bn by 2030; for comparison, the chicken egg production market in the US is a little over $10bn now

Tiziana Di Costanzo, founder of Horizon Foods, with a cricket flour pizza
Tiziana Di Costanzo, founder of Horizon Foods, with a cricket flour pizza.

In the UK, some saw Brexit as an opportunity for the country to disentangle itself from the EU’s often long-winded food approval processes, and to move faster on things like edible insects. Instead, it’s now slower to approve insects than the EU and companies have halted trading and innovation.

In the EU, three species have been approved for consumption — house crickets, yellow mealworms and grasshoppers. In the UK, none have approval.

Weed or bugs: you choose

Under the new rules, companies must submit a dossier to the UK’s Food Standards Agency. Submitting the dossier itself is free, but the agency requires toxicology data, paid for and provided by the applicant. 

That could cost around £80k — far beyond the financial resources of some of the edible insect companies, many of which are fledgling SMEs. 

The UK process is no different to the EU one that British companies used before — it’s the same dossier and the same costs. The problem is, the Food Standards Agency wasn’t in charge of approving “novel foods” before Brexit, and it’s had an influx of applications for a process it didn’t previously handle.

“Post-Brexit, we’ve pretty much copied and pasted the law, and now it’s our own Food Standards Agency that administers it,” says Knott. “I’m guessing they were under-resourced in the first place and then I think by last summer, they had already received over 500 applications.”

Knott estimates 75% of those applications have been from CBD companies producing foods or supplements with cannabidoil. 

The frustrating difference, he says, is that the government put transitional measures in place for the CBD market, meaning goods previously approved under the EU process can still be sold in the UK until they’re re-approved by the UK under the same process — but that measure hasn’t been put in place for insects.

The Food Standards Agency says it’s actively working with businesses producing edible insects to help them through the process. 

In a statement, it said: “We are very keen to support those who want to help the environment in developing alternative protein sources such as insects by providing advice and guidance on the safety checks involved for authorisation. We always put the consumer first so that they have food that is safe, and they can trust.”

Cop26 sparks an awkward realisation

Andy Holcroft runs Grub Kitchen, a restaurant in Pembrokeshire, Wales, which — before the regulation changes — served edible insects. He also runs Bug Farm Foods, which sells insect products, including VEXo, a mince made from bugs which has up to 80% less saturated fat than beef mince.

When the announcement came that insects were suddenly unauthorised, Holcroft stopped manufacturing VEXo and removed insects from his restaurant menu. 

“Insects becoming a non-authorised novel food means we aren’t covered by insurance,” he says. 

Some insect companies continue to operate in the hope that local councils will turn a blind eye, a sort of modern-day Prohibition for bugs. 

But even government officials don’t seem to know quite what is going on. Holcroft was shocked, he says, when he was asked if he would provide edible insects to delegates at Cop26, the UN Climate Conference hosted in Scotland last year — hosted by the UK government.

“We were going to send off a few kilos of VEXo and the government were, as they do, saying ‘we’re going to be the world leaders in this’, before realising it wasn’t allowed under UK law,” says Holcroft.

Di Costanzo was also contacted to supply bugs to Cop. “They just didn’t know that they had been made illegal,” she says.

The government had also, before Brexit, been subsidising the industry through Innovate UK grants, she says, which has made the regulation setbacks more ironic.

I believe I can fly

The Woven Network — a collective of 25 edible insect businesses in the UK — have clubbed together to submit a dossier to approve house crickets. 

It’s a species already approved in the EU through an application by a Belgian company, so Woven pooled resources to buy the application off that company in the hope that that would bring them closer to approval. It could still take 18 months to get approval, however.

In the meantime, Knott says he thinks he may have found an insurance policy that will cover his business even while the bugs are unapproved, meaning he could start manufacturing again while the industry waits for changes in regulations.

“I also want to apply a soft pressure to the Food Standards Agency,” he says. “Because I think they are pro-insect, I think their hands are just tied as much as ours but that they are exploring options internally.”

And while some businesses have packed up trade for the foreseeable future, others are more optimistic.

“It’s negative, obviously, because we’re not able to trade anymore,” says Holcroft. “But, I’m an eternal optimist, I always see the silver lining in the clouds. I think the positive that will come out of this is that companies that are really serious about doing this for the right reasons have really galvanised and come together.”

Freya Pratty is Sifted’s news reporter. She tweets from @FPratty 

Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of