Interview with Dr. Ken Tudor, veterinary and pet nutrition expert
Three reasons to feed our pets with edible insects-based products?
First is the increased world consumption of protein. Added to this is the worldwide increased desire to feed pets the same protein that their human owners are also eating. This dramatically puts international supply/demand pressure on the pricing of traditional protein sources.
Secondly, the sustainability of producing traditional livestock sources of protein to meet the increasing demand is approaching a tipping point. Already, 30% of the world land mass is used to graze and produce food for livestock. 70% of the grains and cereals harvested worldwide are used for livestock feed. Livestock are a sizable producer of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. Decreased rainfall from environmental change challenges worldwide water supply and it presently takes an estimated 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of lievstock meat. Food and water conversion is much more efficient for insect protein with a marked reduction in greehouse emissions.
Thirdly, insects are ubiquitous with over 1,900 edible species distrubuted over a greater geographical and climate diversity. This versus the limited number of livestock and fish species, some with restricted geographical limitations, presently raised for protein
Three reasons why we shouldn’t?
First, we lack hard data on the true digestibility of insect protein. Laboratory assays of protein and amino acids are not a guarantee they are digested and assimilated from the gut due to the high percentage that is chitonous exoskeleton and thought to be indigestible. The fact that 1/3 of the world population includes insects in their diet is not proof of digestibility. That 1/3 also lives in underdeveloped countries that have high levels of malnutrition so one could question whether insect protein ameliorates malnutrition or, in fact, contributes to it.
Secondly, present husbandry methods of insect production are loosely regulated, if at all, for protein destined for the pet markets. Larval stages can ingest heavy metals and toxins that contaminate their food sources and quickly concentrate them for consumption up the food chain, i.e. pets. Growing in inadequate environments, often teaming with bacteria, could pose direct threats of pet food contamination.
Third, without regulatory blessing and enforcement for feeding insect protein products, pet owners feeding these products may be making themselves vulnerable to charges and penalties for animal cruelty, especially here in the US.
The insect-based nutrition for pets is a really huge potential market. What kind of develpoment can we expect in the near future?
I think it is only a short time before insects will be considered an option for hypoallergenic pet diets.
The pet food industry is increasingly producing pet food with non-traditional, unusual or “novel” protein sources. To treat and diagnose food allergies in pets, veterinarians need to recommend food with protein sources to which a pet has not been previously exposed. Lamb, bison, duck, venison, various fish species are frequently recommend for allergic patients. The pet food industry has flooded the market with foods containing these novel protein sources so pets are being exposed to these meats. Veterinarians are left with meats like kangaroo, alligator or other novel proteins for food allergies. But the pet food industry is even now marketing products with kangaroo and alligator. So we veterinarians are struggling to find proteins our patients have not been exposed to. We may have to resort to using protein sources that pet owners are emotionally sensitive about feeding to their pets like mice, rat, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs and song birds.
What are the acceptance obstacles this industry has to face?
I don’t think the pet food industry has a cultural acceptance problem with insect protein. Presently they are willing to use any protein source to accomodate or create demand. In my mind the largest, single industry obstacle is supply. The economy of scale necessary to meet the insect protein demand for the over $Trillion worldwide pet food market cannot be met with today’s small, labor intensive operations. Production facilities will need to be highly mechanized and automated conveyor systems easily maintained and capable of high heat streilization. Using restaurant and processed food waste will need sophisticated quality control methods not presently a part of industry standards.
And what about regulatory ones?
Without a body of research documenting digestibility of insect protein, regulatory agencies, like AAFCO in the US, are unlikely to grant GRAS status (Generally Regard As Safe) to insect protein so it can be used in pet food products. AAFCO feeding trial guidelines are an extremely low hurdle but as of yet university, industry or independent venture capital groups have not initiated steps toward the necessary body of documentation needed to warrant AAFCO consideration.
What can we say to a pet owner to make him overcome the “yuk” factor (that surely the pet doesen’t feel)?
Entomophagy advocates are creating the yuck factor. Marketing efforts must drop the notion of associating images of and reference to insects in company logos, promotional literature and other materials. Lamb producers do not show pictures of sweet, live baby sheep to promote lamb consumption. That would be marketing suicide. Rather, they emphasize the taste, texture and sensations associated with eating lamb. We must do the same with insect protein. Promote the high level of protein and essential fats and associate that with images of lifestyle and fine cuisine, not bugs. The yuck factor will disappear.
Have you ever tried edible insects? If you did, what were your feelings about the first time you tried? If you don’t, would you?
Yes. My grandfather introduced me to fried grasshoppers and chocolate covered ants at the age of 10. I have formulated homemade dog food recipes using cricket meal for my dog and grand dogs and joined them in the feast.
What do you think about human entomophagy?
All of us already engage in it to a degree. Certain ubiquitous food additives and colorings are derived only from insect sources. It is not necessary to disclose this information on food ingredient labels so most Americans or consumers in other countries are unaware that they regularly consume insect prodcuts. When we get some solid digestibility data, I say full steam ahead. The world needs a sustainable alternative protein and I am certainly ready to participate.