Feed Bites

What is the Buzz About Bugs?

Written by: Louise Calderwood   |   November 12, 2020

Ingredients, Pets, Environmental footprint

Dried black soldier fly larvae

Any pet owner who has watched as their dog or cat snapped at a fly or chased a grasshopper and then happily gobbled up the insect has probably inwardly grimaced as the pet crunched on the critter. Even knowing the insect is a good source of balanced protein can still make it hard to overcome the “ewww” factor of eating mealworms and crickets. In the United States, black soldier fly larvae can be fed to poultry, swine and certain types of fish in their diets and also sold for use as treats or snacks for pets.

But on the other side of the Atlantic, insects are finding their way into pet food formulations in the United Kingdom and European Union, where investment is building the necessary production capacity to support commercial sales of complete animal diets. As pet food owners explore alternative protein sources, I wanted to explore, why are they choosing products that feature insects?

Unlike other countries, there is no movement afoot in the U.S. to use black soldier fly larvae or crickets as the main protein source in pet diets. If a company would like to use insects as part of a complete pet food diet, they must go through the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Additive Petition process, in which a “food additive” is evaluated and may be approved for specific use (e.g., to supply nutrients or add flavor or aroma to a pet food). The FDA also approves ingredients through the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) process, which uses available scientific evidence to verify safety. Both processes use publicly available information to assess and determine product safety. The Association of American Feed Control Officials also has a process by which its membership reviews and approves highly specific ingredient definitions.

Consumers are buying pet foods that contain alternative proteins for a variety of reasons, but economics is generally not one of them. Traditional pet foods use wholesome animal protein ingredients that are not commonly part of the human dinner plate, such as liver and heart. These ingredients, commonly obtained from beef and poultry processing, provide the necessary protein that mimics a pet’s natural diet at an affordable price for pet owners. Moving to alternative protein ingredients, such as insects, increases the cost of finished pet food by three-fold or more. Edible insects are expensive because the supply is low and demand is growing quickly.  It is anticipated that market forces will bring the price down as suppliers gear up for this higher demand.

Some environmentally conscientious pet owners believe that feeding insects and other alternative proteins, such as cell-cultured meat, can reduce the environmental footprint of pet ownership. Research conducted at Wageningen University, a Netherlands institution that focuses exclusively on food and the environment, indicates that black soldier fly larvae can be produced with a fraction of the water or land for a comparable amount of protein sourced from animals. The larvae produce minimal amounts of greenhouse gases and are a rich source of high-quality protein that can be considered comparable to poultry and fish meal in diet formulation.

Members of the American Feed Industry Association continuously assess the use of new ingredients to support the sustainable production of nutritious food for livestock and companion animals. If U.S. animal food manufacturers follow the European lead, consumers may one day purchase bags of insect-based pet food and remember the days when bugs were expensive and rarely seen on grocery store shelves.

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