Preliminary Comments on Federal Regulations Pertaining to Insects As Food

Paris M. Brickey, Jr
J. Richard Gorharn
Food and Drug Administration
Washington, DC, USA

According to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act5 (FD&C Act), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has jurisdiction over foods that move in interstate commerce and foods that are imported. We are not aware of any food products composed of insects that are manufactured within the United States (USA) and offered for sale in interstate commerce. This is not to imply that such products do not or should not exist, only that we have not heard about them.

With regard to insects imported as food, however, there does seem to be a small but persistent market in the USA. Although most American consumers do not think of insects as “food,” insects fall under FDA’s definition of food if that is the proposed usage by the importer [Sec. 201 (f)].5 If the intended use of the imported insects is as food, then any such product would be subject to all pertinent sections of the FD&C Act under which foods are regulated. In other words, within the limits imposed by the FD&C Act, FDA treats all foods equally, no matter what they consist of or where they come from.

The minimum standards are that there must be no filth in food [Sec. 402(a) (3)] and there must be no filth around food [Sec. 402(a) (4)]5 . (Note: The FD&C Act includes many other standards besides the ones specifically mentioned here.) The fact that a food product consists largely or entirely of insects intentionally processed and packaged for use as human food does not automatically bar it from commercial distribution to the American consumer. Usually, all that FDA requires under the law is that the food, whether imported or manufactured domestically, must be clean and wholesome (i.e. free from filth, pathogens and toxins), must have been manufactured, packaged, stored and transported under sanitary conditions, and must be properly labeled in English (Sec. 403)5. (Note: Other requirements might also apply under certain conditions.) For purposes of illustration, we will briefly note a few selected examples of insects imported as food.

Insect larvae in bottles of Mexican mescal and tequila. Several wild species of agave harvested by mescaleros are used to produce mescal, but most of that distilled beverage comes from the cultivated forms of Agave angustifolia. Cultivated varieties of A. tequilana are harvested to produce tequila.1 At some point lost in the distant past, it became the practice of some

Mexican distillers to add an insect larva to each bottle of certain lots of mescal and tequila. Nowadays one can purchase either beverage with or without the larvae.

The insect larvae selected for this noble sacrifice are usually from among those associated with agave (maguey) plants and are typically lepidopteran borers within these succulents. A common offering is the maguey worm, Aegiale hesperiaris 4 (Megathymidae, Lepidoptera). Also represented have been Agathymus spp. (Megathymidae), species of another genus of obligate, agave-feeding giant skippers. Recently, Steven Passoa and Julian P. Donahue (personal communication) each independently discovered that a kind of larva often found in tequila is the caterpillar of an agave-boring carpenter moth, Comadia redtenbacheri (Cossidae). In Mexico, these larvae are known variously as gusanos rojos (or rosados) del maguey, gusanitos del mezcal, or chilocuiles. Weevil grubs (Curculionidae, Coleoptera) have also been found, especially in “miniatures.” (Note: We thank J. P. Donahue, David K. Faulkner and John W. Brown for information about the insect “fauna” of tequila and mescal.)

Actual ingestion of the larvae seems to be rare, especially in Mexico. Norteamericanos apparently eat the larvae only sporadically, usually after having consumed the other contents of the bottle (apparently a necessary prerequisite) and/or having become involved in some rite of passage that requires a touch of machismo (or feminismo, as the case may be), as was portrayed in the movie Urban Cowboy. [Note: Are Urban Cowboy and Poltergeist II the only commercial movies that depict deliberate entomophagy?]

At one time there was some concern within the FDA that the larval insect in a bottle of mescal or tequila might represent filth in food in violation of Sec. 402(a) (3) of the FD&C Act. But a kinder and gentler interpretation of the law prevailed and it was eventually concluded that since the larvae are added intentionally, they become part of the product and do not constitute insanitation.

Frozen steamed ant eggs (Formicidae, Hymenoptera) from Thailand. This product was adulterated with animal hairs (human, cat/dog, rat/mouse), feather barbules, mites, and insect fragments [violation of 403(a) (3)1]5 The product consisted largely of pupae, larvae and some adults, but very few eggs and was therefore misbranded (Sec 403)5.