It has been almost a year since our first interview with Marco Ceriani, founder of Italbugs. The Italian start-up is moving more and more towards foreign countries, so we wanted to understand more about that.
In spite of your name, your company has been described as part of the brain-drain phenomenon, why?
In Italy we have the EFSA headquarters and a particularly demanding Ministry of Health, so as a country, we have more regulations to keep in mind. At the same time, Italy is behind in the legislation regarding the use of insects, which ties our hands in this area. Actually, we haven’t run away from Italy, we are simply expanding to countries where we can work and have more market opportunities.
You are going on with your commitment for the regulation to advance, both in Europe and in Italy, indeed
We are members of IPIFF, the Brussels-based Association that interacts with the European Legislator to introduce the regulations for edible insects, first as feed and then as food.
On November 3rd, I was received in a hearing in the Italian Senate, Committee for Agriculture and Food Production, on the theme of edible insects. After Expo2015 this is the first time that the issue is dealt by the Italian Legislators. We italians, speaking in the football language, are good in counterattack and Italy, after this opening from the Commission, could arrive from last to first in Europe, by authorizing the consumption of some species of insects as feed and food. We have no choice, as in the documentary film by Leonardo DiCaprio we are “before the flood”.
Regarding your project Ithaibugs, a Thai sports food factory dedicated to supplements specific for athletes: why Thailand?
The project started there 10 years ago. I was in Thailand as a nutritionist to support the athletes of the Italian Muay Thai team, I saw the Thai athletes taking insects and I started to get interested. Ten years ago the topic was not as known as it is nowadays.
Thailand is also a country of reference in which people consume insects and in which there are more than 20.000 insect farmers. Europe has just started in the last two years to address regulations and work capacity, with ad-hoc regulations and certifications that instead are missing in Thailand where the insect is treated as his relative shrimp, and is transported with the cold chain or dried.
The problem with Thailand is the big difference with Europe, as well as the recent death of the king -who was considered as a god- that could create instability in the coming months or years.
In October 2016 you opened a research lab in the Netherlands. In practical terms, what does the delay in the Italian legislation mean for a company that works on entomophagy? What couldn’t you do in Italy that you can do in the Netherlands?
In Italy you cannot do anything, insects are classified as a food pest, primarily for pasta, so they cannot be raised, cannot be used in animal feed (aquaculture). The Netherlands is one of the 5-6 countries in Europe where you can work with insects. The Dutch choice has also been made for the forefront in the research present in this area. A vanguard that is part of their tradition in aquaculture.
What kind of research will you carry on in the Dutch facility?
The same research that we carried on in Italy, we are validating and improving it. We work on all stages, from the screening of the insect species, to the breeding, the feeding, the processing of the ingredients and the development of food products. We are moving in a very creative sector because it is in its year 0. Now we are close to the production and then to the sale.
When will we see your products on the market?
Around Christmas. We are considering both online and in store sale.
What is the relationship between your facilities in Italy, the Netherlands and Thailand?
They are relations of research, of moving people.
We finished the project in Thailand, which will continue in other ways. In Europe we are starting with research and production in the Netherlands.
The product is designed in Italy, it has absorbed the culture, the way of life and eating of the italian tradition. The activities that were done at the Technology Park in Lodi (PTP Science Park) are completed, now in Italy remains only an outpost where we carry on a cultural and scientific association. We have never referred to the Italian market, which is very old from the consumer point of view and very limited in quantity: let’s say it will remain a non-market, at least for the next few years.
How many people do you employ? Are they Italian or do you have a multicultural team?
We have no employees but collaborators, especially researchers collaborating on a project, depending on the type of product.
Certainly the team is international, in Italy there are fewer skills in this area because foreign universities have been working on it for longer and are also facilitated in legislative terms. Italian universities are not less good, but the fact that a research centre like the CNR of Turin or ours in Lodi encounters great obstacles to get the insect samples to work on, causes problems and delays in the research timing. We are talking about flour or protein extracts that cannot get stuck at the depot of a courier, because they degrade.
This is however an issue to consider more for ecosystem then food security: you have to be careful when moving insects from one country to another, as we have seen for the red palm weevil, or we are seeing these days for the Asian stink bug. For this reason, from the list of 10 edible insects that Belgium has presented to the European Parliament, locusts have recently been removed, because they can lead to pest infestations in the fields. So, Legislation should take into account several aspects.
What future application do you see for insects in the human diet?
For insects, there doesn’t exist yet a market or a consumption frame. There are many references but they are all attempts on small-scale, because the real problem is that the insect reared in a systemic manner as the large animals is not there yet. The subject is treated with too much simplicity, sometimes even superficiality, especially in Italy. People think that insects are a convenient business because they are something very small, that can be bred with low costs and above all that can be used quickly. Instead, to dry and mill a whole cricket as it is it’s not a great idea because it results in a not very digestible product. Studies, belonging more to the nutraceutical than the food science, on the digestibility and the nutrients that an insect really contains, have been carried out only partially. Chitin and fibers are important but you have to know them, know how to handle and dose them, they should not be an ineluctable presence: for instance a flour very high in chitin irreparably damages texture and rheology of pasta.
The model you see on the internet, where the product consists of dried and packed bugs, is actually the Thai model; a model from which to begin, but to evolve. I think that the little packets of dried insects are good for Halloween, for snacks, for the parties, to impress people, but that is not a business model.
Putting a bug in the mouth as it is always seen on the social networks or on the media doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t legitimize the market but rather confirms the sense of repulsion. No one would ever think to bite a shrimp, a lobster or a crab as they are. The insect, like any animal although small, has to be processed, there must be a mode of use typical of the food: to make an extract is fine, to use the fleshy/edible parts is fine, to put a cockroach in the dish doesn’t make sense. Frankly, I don’t like to see the cooking show if not done by professionals like chef. I believe that edible insect’s future must be closely linked to professionalism and correctness of a clear message: the insect is not nice to think about, but good to eat! Italian culture and taste can make a difference also in this new food-business model.