“Things really exploded last year and they don’t seem to be slowing down in 2016,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“My brothers [Darren and Ryan Goldin] have been raising crickets for the pet market [exotic pets such as reptiles eat live insects] for more than a decade, but on the human food side, we only got started in January 2014 with 5,000sq ft [the pet business - Reptile Feeders - operates at a different location] 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,” added Dr Goldin, who has made a career as a chiropractor, but now supplies the two highest-profile players in the US edible insects space, EXO and Chapul, plus scores of other customers in North America and beyond.
Processing techniques: We’re trying new things all the time
Despite the company’s meteoric growth, however, there’s no room for complacency, he said, noting that while the founders of Entomo Farms (previously known as Next Millennium Farms) have been raising crickets and mealworms for years, the processing side of the operation – whereby the frozen insects are turned into ingredients for human food consumption – is still relatively new, with all practitioners on a rapid learning curve.
“I feel like as an industry we’re not even at the first innings of a nine innings baseball game. It’s just so early. Insects have so many potential applications, from industrial applications, to personal care, food, feed, even pharma. We're also looking at whether there is a market for the eggs, so I feel like we’re just at the very beginning.”
When it comes to processing crickets for food applications, he said, “We’re trying out new things all the time as it’s amazing how different the output is based not just on what you feed the insects [if you feed crickets fishmeal, for example, they can taste fishy], but on how you process them. Our #1 mantra as a company is to bring the price down."
Snacks, bars and protein powders are the top application areas of interest for edible insect powders, which are high in protein (65% by dry weight), low in saturated fat and rich in omega-3s, iron, calcium and other nutrients.
However, cricket powder also works well in veggie burgers, sausages, fruit rollups, shakes and other products. Inclusion rates vary by product, and are in many cases limited by cost rather than functionality, although you can generally get more in a bar, than say, chips.
As cricket powder is more like a protein powder than flour, 1:1 replacements with wheat flour are not generally advised.
“We don’t discuss which processing methods we use, but there are several possible methods," explained Dr Goldin.
"You start with frozen whole crickets, because that’s how they are killed – they are basically put to sleep – and then you wash them.
"Then they could be prepared and ground into a slurry and put through some kind of oven system and roasted and then ground again into a fine, light powder that’s beween 80 and 100 microns. Alternatively, you could roast them whole and then grind them into a darker coarser powder, which gives you a very different flavor profile and texture.
“You could also freeze dry them or use other dehydration methods to remove all the moisture.
“We have different customers that prefer different types of powders. Some want a very fine light powder and some want a coarser grittier powder for products such as chocolate.”
Organic and gluten free
Entomo Farms offers USDA organic products certified by Ecocert, although they come with a premium owing to the higher cost of organic feed, he said. “If you look at our wholesale pricing, it’s 25-30% more for the organic powders.”
The company also offers organic gluten-free cricket powders, he said. “Crickets are not great natural converters of gluten, and if you are using gluten-containing grains in your cricket feed, you can get gluten in the powders, so we have worked with our feed suppliers to develop gluten-free feed for this line.”
Optimizing cricket feed regimes
On the feed side of things, the landscape is also evolving, he said. “You want a predictable output for the final product, so there is a predictable amount of protein, iron and so on, so you can’t just feed them anything.”
While the economics of cricket farming start to look more appealing when you substitute grains for cheaper post-consumer organic waste, for example, you have to be careful about the choices you make, he said.
“What you get from these organic waste suppliers from one week to the next could be completely different, and that can affect the output, so you have to work out what percentage you can use to get costs down, while ensuring that the end product remains consistent.”
Edible insects and regulation
Things are also evolving on the regulatory side of things, he said, noting that while the FDA considers insects to be food, provided they are raised and handled in food grade facilities, best practices are still being established.
“We are going to be working with a group including entomologists from Wayne State and the University of Georgia,” added Dr Goldin, who said Entomo Farms has just submitted safety data about its products and processes to Health Canada and has also put together a self-determined GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) dossier that it plans to submit to the FDA .
“The group doesn’t have a formal name yet; our first meeting is in May; but we want to work with the government to establish best practices.”
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.
We don’t want to compete with our customers
So what’s the longer term game plan for Entomo Farms, which unlike some other players in the trade, is vertically integrated in that it raises and processes its crickets?
“90% of our business is wholesale,” said Dr Goldin. “We have a small store on our website and we sell some retail products (powders), but we don’t intend on selling consumer-facing products that use our ingredients such as bars and cookies.
“We don’t want to compete with our customers. Running a successful consumer products business is completely different to farming and processing.
"That’s not to say that as our business grows we wouldn’t look into the merits of that or maybe purchasing a company looking for an exit strategy, but it’s not our focus at all right now.”
Our wholesale costs have come down about 40% in the last year alone
So how does he respond to sources within the industry that argue that the prices Entomo Farms is offering in the market place are not sustainable, and that the edible insects industry does not have the potential that some market observers originally thought?
As for pricing, said Dr Goldin: "Our wholesale costs have come down about 40% in the last year alone because we have become bigger and more efficient, but there is margin and profit for us in every part of our operation, so it's absolutely sustainable.
"For another business that isn't vertically integrated to compete with us on price [for powders] would be difficult, but we will supply crickets to companies that just want to do the processing part. It may be that they have a different processing methodology that produces a powder that some customers want, for example, but we'll supply anyone that wants to buy our frozen crickets."
As for the long-term viability of the edible insects business, he acknowledges that it remains a niche part of the food landscape right now, but says the trajectory is what matters. "We haven't grown from 5,000 to 60,000sq ft because we're sitting on inventory, so I'm very optimistic about the future."
Ohio-based cricket farmer Big Cricket Farms had a very challenging year in 2015, but hopes to make a comeback in the near future, founder Kevin Bachhuber (pictured left) told FoodNavigator-USA: "Youngstown, Ohio, like so many other Rust Belt cities and towns, has run into water supply problems. An overabundance of trihalomethane (THM) corroded our water infrastructure, allowing increasing amounts of lead, copper, and iron to leak into our water supply.
"We used a reverse osmosis water filter for the water that our crickets drink, but we learned that many of the filters used are simply inadequate to properly filter the level of heavy metals found in our drinking water. We experienced extremely heavy mortality levels in our cricket populations as a result of the water issues, and grew concerned about the possible risk to our consumers and our developing industry as a whole if our crickets were shipped with high levels of heavy metal.
"We're relocating in the next few weeks. We've had wonderful offers of support from people and Chambers of Commerce in Atlanta, Sacramento, St Louis, and others. A few of the pet food cricket farmers have offered to let us co-locate with them, since we know the water is safe for crickets there. For the short term, we'll be helping some of these farmers certify as food grade so we can continue with a more diverse and risk-tolerant supply chain. In the longer term, yes, we will raise crickets again."