Photo of Katia Merten-Lentz

This article was published at Footprint.

New laws are being designed to accelerate the growth of novel foods, including algae, insects and cultured meat, but will Brexit put the brakes on things?

Novelty can contribute substantially to the success of a restaurant or catering company, offering customers something new and competitors something to think about. However, introducing a new twist on a traditional favourite or even an exotic ingredient is one thing, but chucking in some crickets, adding a pinch of algae or laying on a lab-based burger is quite another.

OK, so we aren’t there with the cultured meat yet, but there is increasing interest in other novel foods like insects and algae. As Waitrose noted in its food and drink report way back in 2017: “… everyone from tiny start-up companies to big brands is looking for clever new ways to add a protein punch.”

But they have to be careful. In the UK, when innovation directly concerns food offered to the consumer, the products are likely to fall into the scope of a strict European set of rules applying to “novel foods”. These have been covered under EU regulations since 1997, but in January 2018 the rules were reformed and recast into Regulation (EU) 2015/2283. According to the European Commission, it “improves conditions so that food businesses can easily bring new and innovative foods to the EU market, while maintaining a high level of food safety for European consumers”.

“Compared to its outdated predecessor, this regulation sets up several tools facilitating access of novel foods to the EU market,” explains Katia Merten-Lentz, partner at law firm Keller & Heckman. This is good news – and not just for food manufacturers and retailers. “Even if this regulation has been mainly intended for food industries, which are the first to develop and invest into food innovation, the foodservice sector may also benefit from some of these new rules,” she adds.

Novel foods are defined as foodstuffs that were not consumed within the EU to a significant degree before 15 May 1997, and which fall into at least one of the categories explicitly mentioned by the legal definition – like food isolated from algae, animal or their parts, or resulting from a new production process. As Caroline Commandeur, legal consultant at Keller & Heckman, explains: “Under EU law, such novel foods are presumed to be unsafe, explaining why, before being proposed to the consumers, they must be expressly authorised, after a scientific assessment ensuring their safety.”

Only novel foods expressly authorised and included in a unique and specific EU list can be placed on the EU market, or used in or on foods. In European food law, the definition of “placing on the market” is quite wide, and includes all sales and supplies, including one-off sales, one-off supplies free of charge, and even holding food for the purpose of sale.

“Any establishment selling food for direct consumption is, in fact, placing food on the market and as such is also subject to the novel food regulation’s requirements,” Merten-Lentz explains.

There are some differences in the new authorisation process though, which will help the expansion of the novel foods sector. For example, with the previous system “only the one who applied for the authorisation was, in the end, allowed to place the given novel food on the EU market”, says Commandeur. “Now the authorisations are generic.” This means that once a novel food is included in the EU list, any food operator can market it, under the conditions specified. That’s also great news for foodservice companies, as Commandeur explains: “This new system provides foodservice operators the opportunity to boost their competitiveness, without having to build an expensive and time-consuming ‘notification dossier’ each time they want to use a novel food which is already authorised, as they were supposed to do under the previous rules.”

There are a number of applications (20 in all) relating to insects, for example – including black soldier flies and house crickets. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is in charge of the assessments, which have to be rigorous – they will factor in everything from potential issues over allergenicity to what substrate is used to feed the insects.

The emergence of insects as a foodstuff has been well documented, with one key advantage being their role in the circular economy as “living recyclers”. In 2018, the UK government gave £571,166 to Entomics, a firm in Cambridge that is rearing black soldier fly larvae on different “recipes”. It’s even investigating “microbial fermentation technology”, a technique that reportedly enhances the nutritional quality of the feed with knock-on benefits in terms of animal welfare and reduced antibiotic use. At Wageningen University in the Netherlands, meanwhile, researchers are comparing the environmental footprint of rearing black soldier flies on food waste and by-products from food manufacturing with composting and anaerobic digestion.

There could also be more novel foods arriving from overseas. “Traditional foods from third countries, derived from primary production and with a history of safe use for at least 25 years, could now benefit from a simplified and fast-track procedure of notification to be marketed in the EU,” says Commandeur.

But what happens after Brexit? All these rules should remain in place in the UK during the current transition period and the European Union Withdrawal Bill is likely to preserve and incorporate all EU food-safety regulations directly in UK law. However, uncertainties (as ever) persist, in particular on how specific functions currently endorsed by EU bodies, such as scientific assessment carried out by EFSA, would be transferred to UK authorities or how novel foods added to the EU list after Brexit would be “framed” in the UK. “Brexit could be a brake on food innovation in the UK,” warns Merten-Lentz, which would be a shame given that the novel food regulation is designed to accelerate it.