'Legislators are right not to rush into allowing insects enter the food chain' - expert reveals findings showing heavy metals in flies reared on waste

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

© istock.com/CreativeNature_nl
© istock.com/CreativeNature_nl

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Indications from trials assessing the safety of using insects for feed show fly larvae contain very high levels of heavy metals, putting their use as a potential protein source for pigs and poultry at risk.

“Academics and industry have been pushing for the use of insect derived protein in poultry and pig feed but, until we have more concrete data and feeding trials, legislators are right not to rush into allowing insects enter the food chain,”​ Adrian Charlton, biochemist at the Food & Environment Research Agency in the UK, told us.

He is one of the scientists working on ProTeINSECT, a €3m EU Commission funded insect to feed project involving researchers based in seven countries. It was launched a year ago.

Cadmium levels

Charlton, who was discussing his findings at a conference on animal nutrition in Brussels today, said initial tests have shown certain flies raised on animal and food waste have cadmium levels higher than limits set by the EU.  

“As it stands protein sourced from those flies could not be used in compound feed in the EU but, of course, these are challenges that can be overcome.

Researchers need to analyze insect feedstocks such as animal manure and agriculture waste to ensure a low presence of heavy metal contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium and lead before rearing flies for feed and food on it. They also need to evaluate the processing steps involved in insect derived protein to ensure limited exposure to contaminants during production,” ​continued the scientist.

Charlton and his team have been comparing insects reared in different environments, in multiple countries and on various feedstocks.

Contaminant screening

“We have also been looking at manure to see whether it contains disease-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and Campylobacter​, or leftovers of veterinary products given to livestock.  We have been screening for the presence of mycotoxins like aflatoxin A in in food scraps used as feedstock, and we have found pesticide residues in certain samples of agriculture waste that flies fed on.

But the type and level of toxins in feedstocks very much depends on local agriculture, insect drying methods, and livestock rearing practices in a given market,"​ said the ProTeINSECT researcher.

He said, despite the safety and quality challenges, ProTeINSECT researchers are ready to carry out studies looking at the performance of pigs and poultry fed insect meal.

“Allergen screening, taking into account animal behavior characteristics and yield and weight gain, will be included in these feeding trials.  And they will be done at a meaningful scale to be industry relevant.

We are aiming to determine what is the best compound ratio to make the introduction of insect derived protein into animal feed economically viable,”​ added Charlton.

EU regulatory timeline

The researcher said he expects it would be at least 12 months before the EU Commission drafts regulation around the use of insect protein in pigs and poultry diets in the EU.

The Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) sent a request to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in May, seeking an opinion on the microbial, chemical and environmental hazards linked to insects in food and feed, relative to the risks posed by other protein sources used by the sectors. 

In July, EFSA experts asked the regulator for additional information before they could go ahead with the assessment. They sought clarification on some points in the terms of reference of the mandate.

DG Sanco wants the opinion to be published by next June. 

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