Just when you think Food Contact Surfaces couldn’t get more weird, we strive to make sure we out-do ourselves. Today, we have a story that we’re prepared to bet you didn’t see coming…bugs! And not just any old bugs. Socially-impactful, environmentally-sustainable, and economically-lucrative bugs. You may be forgiven for thinking that we have a passion for all things entomological – after all, we’ve covered topics as diverse as milking cockroaches, caterpillars as the new weapon against the flu, and the rise of edible insects. But don’t think it just a morbid fascination on our part: by focusing some attention on the efforts to leverage the insect kingdom as a harvestable protein source, we feel we’re connecting with a globally hot topic. From creating sources of high-protein nutrition in a format that does not create massive amounts of waste products (beef and pork production, for example) to removing sentient creatures from our dinner plates (cows and pigs, for example), there are myriad reasons for looking to ‘alternative’ food sources for our necessary nutrients.
So let’s pose a riddle. Apart from death and taxes, what is the other inevitable certainty of life? If you guessed waste production, you guessed right. Even the most frugal and environmentally-aware of us is not immune from generating waste as we go about our normal, everyday lives. And among the waste we leave in our collective wake – from the materials we recycle such as paper, plastics, metals, and glass to those we send to landfills such as disposable diapers, leather items, newspapers, and Styrofoam – our food waste is arguably the most problematic. Food waste? According to Glen Courtright of EnviroFlight (a company to which we will return shortly), in the United States a staggering 40% (or 35 million tons) of the food that is grown or manufactured will end up in a landfill each year.(1) We’re talking food scraps like apple cores and citrus peel, meat off-cuts, stale bread, banana peels, pizza crusts, coffee grounds, and so on. And how do the municipal facilities get rid of this mountain of food waste? We’re glad you asked! Aside from the small amount of home composting that’s currently en vogue, the vast majority of our kitchen scraps and out-of-date ready meals find their final resting place in an anaerobic digester, which breaks the organic materials into carbon dioxide, methane, and water by means of bacteria and archae. How? Four relatively simple processes…
The first step of anaerobic (‘without oxygen’) digestion is hydrolysis, whereby the raw materials are broken down into glucose molecules, amino acids, and fatty acids. After that, bacteria further dismantle the components into volatile fatty acids and alcohols, with hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, and ammonia being by-products. This stage of digestion is termed ‘acidogenesis.’ Similarly named, acetogenesis is step three and involves converting the products of step two to hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and acetic acid. And finally, archae (single-celled microorganisms) convert the hydrogen and acetic acid to methane and carbon dioxide, in a process called methanogenesis.(2)
And it’s already easy to see where the problem with this solution lies. Methane. Anaerobic digestion produces copious amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas that is more dangerous than carbon dioxide in terms of environmental pollution. In fact, quoting the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report (AR5), the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cites methane as being between 28 and 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere over the course of 100 years.(3) And according to the National Council on Air and Stream Improvement, a research institute focusing on environmental and sustainability issues as they relate to forest management, methane generation from landfills has been increasing. Although most modern landfill facilities contain much of their methane, the amounts generated have grown over the past two decades and, as our material consumption increases in our ‘churn and burn’ society, so will our methane generation.
Some short-term measures have included exporting waste overseas with countries such as China, India, and Pakistan processing it on our behalf. In legal terms, the practice is questionable insofar as it contravenes the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, negotiated by the United Nations in 1988.(4) And in global environmental terms it’s the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. Fundamentally, we need a better, more globally sustainable alternative and, according to pioneering work in Switzerland, Canada, and here in the U.S., we may soon be able to harness an unusual ally in the fight. The Black Soldier Fly…
Born into the taxonomical family Stratiomyidae, genus Hermetia, the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens) is a curious beast. Closely resembling a wasp, the fly is non-pathogenic and is neither a disease vector nor is it considered a pest. In fact, due to its complete lack of functioning mouthparts the adult fly cannot bite and simply spends its life – a perhaps all-too-brief five to eight days – searching for a mate and reproducing. And despite its diminutive size – measuring in at a compact half-inch in length – the adult fly can lay between 500 and 900 eggs. Where Black Soldier Fly (BSF) larvae are interesting to us is in their voracious appetite – their almost indefatigable hunger making them an excellent weapon in our assault on the waste food dilemma.
Comparatively little effort is required to establish a colony, with the grubs surviving in acidic conditions, temperature variances, an absence of light, and enjoying up to 70% humidity. Eggs hatch within four days, becoming in turn a larva, a pupa, and – if permitted – finally an adult fly. But in the larval stage, the BSFs develop bodies that are essentially 40 to 50% fat, a statistic to which we will return later.
And the bugs are small. According to a TEDx talk by Glen Courtright of EnviroFlight, it takes one acre of grazing land to produce 20lbs of beef.(5) Equally, that same acre could be used to produce 200lbs of corn. Or to cultivate between 300lbs and 500lbs of soy. But, by using a system of vertical farming, the acre of land can be used to generate 1.2 millions pounds of useable insect protein which can feed humans and traditionally farmed animals. EnviroFlight, based in Yellow Springs, OH, is on a mission to reduce the environmental impact of the way we currently source our food and to eliminate the use of toxins, antibiotics, and hormones in our food supply. Getting its start in the alternative fuels market, the company realized it could work most nimbly on two issues at the same time: food scarcity and waste production. Having initially experimented with mealworms, cockroaches, crickets, and even houseflies, it settled on BSFs which are native to the south-east U.S. With the goal of creating a low-ammonia (and therefore low-odor) product whose manufacture also kept food waste materials out of landfills, EnviroFlight set its sights on leveraging food waste materials and waste products from breweries to feed its hordes of larvae. Remember that these insects have a voracious appetite? Having dined regally during their larval stage, the bugs become a high-protein, high-fat feedstock for animals such as farmed fish, poultry, pigs, and cattle. When mature, they are harvested, cooked, dried, and ground into a meal that is approximately 40% protein and 46% fat. Further refining the product by extracting the oils results in a product that is more than 70% protein, an optimal level for feeding to livestock. In addition, a by-product of the process is frass (in essence the excreta of the BSF) which is stabilized to avoid ammonia production and can be used as a natural nitrogen fixative in soil. The BSF-derived frass has a N-P-K (nitrogen – phosphorous – potassium) profile of 5% – 3% – 2% which is perfect for arable use.(6)
And EnviroFlight is not the only company to be looking to bugs to do some of the heavy lifting in the waste food processing industry. In Switzerland, a country renowned for its efficiency and environmental awareness, Bühler – a global food and feed corporation – has recently launched a joint venture with Netherlands-based Protix – an insect production company – to create Bühler Insect Technology Solutions. The drive behind the partnership is the leveraging of technologies used by Protix in their conversion of low-grade organic waste materials into protein, lipids, and micro-nutrients. And to deploy them on a massive industrial scale. Starting with the BSF, dubbed by Bühler the ‘Queen of waste transformation,’ the company aims to cater to a market it expects to account for a full 15% of global food production by 2050.(7)
‘The goal of the joint venture is to provide industrial and scalable solutions for feedstock processing, larvae rearing and larvae processing, and to produce high-quality insect ingredients – covering the whole value chain from rearing to separation and extraction of proteins and lipids.’(8)
An interesting and ambitious goal indeed. But if we assume that the large-scale cultivation of these larvae will be successful, how will the new glut of insect protein be used? To assuage your perhaps understandably growing panic at the idea of another insect-derived protein bar on the market, let us emphasize that the first uses of the product will actually be overwhelmingly confined to animal feed. For instance, on a global scale approximately 1 billion people rely on fishing for their livelihoods or survival, but the stress this places on our ocean ecosystems is currently unsustainable. Between overfishing, water pollution, and climate change-induced ocean acidification, our reliance upon ocean harvests must change and aquaculture – the breeding and rearing fish in captivity – is an idea that’s gaining traction. Whether situated in ponds, tanks, or raceways, farmed fish ease the pressure on our oceans while still offering fish-based proteins in a way that is less impactful on the environment. However, within the industry waste exists: to feed farmed fish, between 30 and 40 million tons of small oily fish such as sardines and anchovies must be converted into meal annually. And the fish-in:fish-out ratio is small with only 6 to 7 million tons of usable protein derived from the annual catch. And this is where the use of nutrient-dense insect protein can supplant that of small fish to feed larger fish.
And in land animals, an opportunity exists to enrich diets through supplementation with insect-derived compounds. In the Netherlands, Protix has partnered with Coppens Animal Feed, based in Helmond, to produce a pig feed that is high in lauric acid, a natural antimicrobial agent. The supplement is made from BSF ingredients and also works to combat the development and spread of gram negative bacteria such as Streptococcus and Clostridium, decreasing the need for massive use of antibiotics in farmed pigs.(9) Which, given the concerning rise of antibiotic-resistance in so-called ‘superbugs’, should be seen as a positive development.
But, given the demand and the creative ways in which this technology can be used, how can we be sure that we can effectively maintain standards to ensure that insect-derived food or feed is safe? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the production of insect-derived food and feed would be subject to the same guidelines and protocols as any other food product. In other words, it would fall under the auspices of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Preventative Controls for Animal Food, the key requirements of which include the adherence to Current Good Manufacturing Processes (CGMP), the establishment of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems, and a flexible supply chain program to ensure that all raw materials are supplied only by approved partners. The CGMPs include best practices for holding and distributing food products, the prevention of chemical or physical contamination (bacterial, fungal, or microbial), and the observance of preventative controls. By this, of course, we mean the implementation and observance of guidelines we’ve discussed in many previous articles – the HACCP. According to the FDA, HACCPs in food production industries – regardless of whether the end products are destined for the dinner plate or the feedlot – must identify foreseeable hazards such as physical, biological, or chemical contaminants and must institute measures to prevent them entering into the food. Strict oversight and management is required, with monitoring and verification in areas such as refrigerated storage, temperature controlled environments, product testing, and food labeling and identification.
All of which is fine for food products that are manufactured here in the United States. But you will recall our earlier comment that European companies like Bühler are increasingly viewing Asia as the locus of their manufacturing and production facilities. Given the global outreach of these companies, how can we ensure that these products conform to our own national standards?
Again this is where the FDA enters the fray. According to Sections 801, 402 and 403 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), all imported food products ‘must be composed entirely of ingredients judged acceptable for use […] be safe and wholesome, contain no deleterious, harmful, or unapproved substances, and be truthfully labeled.’(10) And in specific reference to animal feeds or pet foods, all ingredients must be approved or be generally recognized as safe (GRAS) although, as our earlier article, Filet Mignon for Fido? Just Hold the Extras! highlights, ‘deleterious’ ingredients – such as plastic – can slip through. Perhaps it is a game of numbers – with the vast majority of products conforming to safety guidelines and just the rogue few slipping by. And if that is the case, it’s a matter of hyper-vigilance on the part of our governmental organizations in collaboration with an increased sense of responsibility on the part of manufacturers. When it comes to maintaining the integrity of our food supply, responsibility, clarity, and honesty will carry the day. But only if we, as consumers, demand it.
Are you interested in leveraging insects as food sources? Does it make you squeamish to know bugs can be ingredients? We’d love to know your thoughts!