The retailer has not officially confirmed reports that it has dropped all edible-insect-based products, and has not responded to calls or emails from FoodNavigator-USA seeking to clarify whether this is a temporary move while it formalizes its internal approvals procedures for insect-based foods (what we’re hearing from some sources), or a reflection of its lack of belief in the edible insects category.
So what’s going on?
One source told us that selected Whole Foods regions had unilaterally started stocking some bug-based products before Whole Foods Global had developed a structure for how to approve them and so the company opted to step back – and pull the products from shelves – until it developed some core standards around how it might approve these new foods at an institutional level.
Another source told us that edible insects are a “polarizing” issue, with some industry stakeholders very bullish about their potential and others considering them a novelty, adding: “I think someone high up at Whole Foods was not sold on cricket products and felt they were getting too far ahead of the consumer. I don’t believe there was a safety or a regulatory issue.”
Edible insects and allergen labeling: While it’s not a legal requirement, firms using cricket powders are advised to state on pack that people with a shellfish allergy may experience an allergic reaction to edible insects as well.
Little Herds: Solid signs of continued growth
Robert Nathan Allen, founder of Austin-based non-profit Little Herds, which is dedicated to expanding the edible insects category, says he can’t speak for Whole Foods, but believes the decision should not be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in bugs.
“Whole Foods has visited multiple farms that are raising crickets for human food and they are sending out their foragers to learn about how these crickets are raised and what the regulatory framework is, so I don’t want to put words in their mouth, but I don’t believe they have lost interest [in edible insects].”
He added: “If you look at the bigger picture – Chapul 's push into all these new retailers, the investments into EXO and Tiny Farms , and the acquisition of EnviroFlight [which has developed technologies that enable the rearing of non-pathogenic black soldier fly (BSF) larvae in an industrially scalable manner for animal feed], there are solid signs of continued growth.
“There’s a MOM’s Organic Market store in the northeast that has dedicated a whole section to edible insect products to test out consumer demand.”
He added: “We’d love to have a Got Milk type of campaign for bugs – to educate consumers, retailers and all stakeholders about the benefits - and also to explain that there is a clear path to compliance with all relevant food safety regulations, and that we don't need new legislation, we just need to understand how bugs fit into existing regulatory frameworks."
FoodNavigator-USA (FNU): Are all insects considered to be food, or just those with a history of being consumed by humans?
FDA spokesman: “Under the FD&C Act, as amended, insect/bugs are considered food if they are to be used for food or as components of food (Sec. 201 (f)).
“Usually, all that the FDA requires under the law is that the food must be clean and wholesome (i.e. free from filth, pathogens, and toxins), must have been produced, packaged, stored and transported under sanitary conditions, and must be properly labeled (Sec.403). In the case of insects, they must be raised specifically for human food in a good manufacturing practice facility (GMP). Insects raised for animal feed cannot be diverted to human food. They cannot be ‘wildcrafted’ (collected in the wild) and sold as food due to the potential of carrying diseases or pesticides.
“The manufacturer also needs to demonstrate the ‘wholesomeness’ of the product. There is a growing body of literature that people who are allergic to shrimp, clams, etc. may also be allergic to insects either as food or as adulterants in foods.”
FNU: So is the FDA saying that manufacturers supplying milled whole insects such as house crickets do not need to go through the GRAS process (providing they adhere to the conditions you’ve listed above)?
“No, the manufacturers would not need to go through the GRAS process. The manufacturers would need to comply with the premarket provisions of the FD&C Act."
Cricket powder prices have come down significantly
Asked about the price of milled cricket powder – which is probably the biggest barrier for larger manufacturers right now – “prices have come down around 30% in three years,” as more suppliers have come online and developed greater efficiencies with scale, said Allen.
As for new players entering the cricket packaged foods market, while protein powders (Lithic Nutrition , Crik Nutrition, Chapul), nutrition bars (Chapul, EXO, Jungle Bar) and chips (Chirps from Six Foods ) are still the primary application areas, new players are exploring new applications from snack bites (Seek Food ), pasta sauce (One Hop Kitchen ), and high protein bars (Lithic Nutrition - featuring in FoodNavigator-USA later this week), to seasoning made with organic roasted crickets (Incredible Foods ), instant oatmeal (Cricket Flours ), cookie crisps (Bitty Foods ) and pasta (Bugsolutely ), he said.
How do things stand in 2016 from an ingredient supply perspective? Here’s a quick update from some key players:
“We're still putting the finishing touches on our processing operation (we just sent off a new batch of cricket powder for nutritional analysis), so we're not at full scale yet, but we've been supplying a local food product company and a couple of restaurants. We continue to have high inbound interest on the farmer side, with 124 serious applications, and we're beginning the process of identifying our initial partners.”
Daniel Imrie-Situnayake, co-founder, Tiny Farms
“Things really exploded last year and they don’t seem to be slowing down in 2016… My brothers [Darren and Ryan Goldin] have been raising crickets for the pet market for more than a decade, but on the human food side, we only got started in January 2014 with 5,000sq ft, and today, we’ve got a 60,000sq ft farm with a 3,500 sq ft processing facility. We’re looking to get to 100,000sq ft by the end of the fall, so we’re expanding very rapidly…. But I feel like as an industry we’re not even at the first innings of a nine innings baseball game.”
Dr Jarrod Goldin, co-founder, Entomo Farms
“After what happened to our farm [activities at the company’s cricket farm in Youngstown OH were suspended due to water supply problems ], we decided to de-risk by diversifying our supply beyond a single farm. We've been helping some of the old farmers down South get up to food grade, helping new farmers through the startup process, and working to ensure a smooth supply chain.
“We just finished helping the oldest cricket farm in the United States (Armstrong Cricket Farms; 70 years old) qualify for their own food-grade licensing, which is tremendously exciting.”
Kevin Bachhuber, founder, Big Cricket Farms