Edible insects – ESHH goes to Wageningen University

Blog post by Isobel Swinscoe

‘Edible insects: the value chain’ conference – celebrating 10 years of insect research and industry

Over two days in March this year, Wageningen University in the Netherlands hosted one of an increasing number of international conferences showcasing the academic and industrial state of play in the world of insects as food and feed.

My PhD research is assessing the microbiological safety of using seaweed as a sustainable feed source for the larvae of kelp flies and black soldier flies (BSFL), which are intended as sustainable feed for farmed fish. I presented data from recent lab experiments which show that the typical industrial processes of washing and drying freshly harvested seaweed intended as insect feed do not necessarily remove all bacterial pathogens effectively. Whether these same pathogens survive and persist in Black Soldier Fly larvae to which this dried seaweed is then fed was the subject of a follow-up experiment.

The worlds of politics, academia, regulators and industry were all well represented at the conference. Professor Arnold van Huis, of Wageningen University and current Editor-in-chief of the Journal of Insects as Food and Feed, kick-started day one of the talks with ‘Prospects of insects as food and feed to become a successful agricultural sector’. The theme on insect rearing provided some useful insights into BSFL production.

During the theme on insect processing, Leen van Campenhout’s (KU Leuven, Belgium) showed us some great data on microbiological dynamics during rearing of edible insects. Insect producers normally starve their larvae to make them empty their guts prior to harvesting of the larvae. Although this is often assumed to remove any pathogenic bacteria they may have ingested, Leen showed this was not necessarily true with mealworms. This raises the question: how does the lack of standardised rearing and processing practices across companies affect the microbial safety of various insect species? However, my in-situ sampling of seaweed-fed BSFL and the fish feed pellets made out of them for the Aquafly project showed that the high temperatures used to process the various raw materials into the final products (e.g. BSFL meal) was an extremely effective method of microbial decontamination. Perhaps people eating insects directly as food have more to worry about than people eating fish reared on highly processed insect meal?

Speaking of Aquafly, Erik-Jan Lock of the Institute of Marine Research and manager of the Aquafly project since its inception, gave a fantastic talk on day two on the use of insects in aquafeed- nutrition and safety considerations. It was great to hear that the Aquafly project which I’ve been a part of since 2015 has successfully proved the concept that farmed Atlantic salmon can thrive on seaweed-fed BSFL and are safe for human consumers. He concluded that it was now up to the insect and aquaculture industries as to whether they change their feed practices as a result – a clear challenge to all the industrial players in the room!

The conference ended with what, to many, was a highlight of the event – piano pieces inspired by insects, played by Bert van den Brink. And not forgetting a dinner menu in which edible insects naturally played a part – mealworm quiche!

Pic from Conference for Blog
Conference posters by Isobel Swinscoe (left) and Heather Purshouse (right)