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Unlocking the potential of insect meal in animal feed

The animal feed industry has been talking about the nutritional and environmental benefits of using insect meal; however, legislation and availability have limited its practical use. Developments in both areas mean in fish diets it has become a viable option and, for monogastrics, it has real commercial potential.

paulrommer |

Spurred by new research and technological advances, feeding insects to livestock is a hot topic. But, really, it is nothing new. Fish, poultry and pigs are all omnivorous, naturally eating a diet made up of flora and fauna. For farmed fish, there is a traditional small-scale production of insects. And when domesticated animals can range outside, they will undoubtedly consume invertebrates. Changing legislation, consumer attitudes and sustainability drivers all mean that including insects in animal feed will become more common.

Why insect meal?

Insects play a crucial role within the food cycle as a natural processor of organic waste. In doing so, they multiply rapidly and do not require the amount of land that crops or livestock do. Its ability to replace fishmeal, particularly in aquaculture, is also a key driver in terms of sustainability.

Larvae of the black soldier fly (BSF) and the housefly, along with mealworms, are the most industrially produced species of insect. During processing, these insects are dried and maybe de-fatted before being processing into a meal. The resulting product is high in protein (<40 percent), highly digestible and contains preferential levels of essential amino acids.

The regulations of insect meal

In the EU, the main barrier to commercial use of insect meal has been legislation. Rules devised to prevent the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy have meant that insect meal was only allowed into pet diets. The only exception is insect oil, which is used by a few feed manufacturers. However, by the second half of this year, the EU should allow the inclusion of insect meal in diets for farmed fish. And it is predicted that they will allow insect meal in all animal feed formulations by 2020.

In the United States, the use of insect meal is decided on a state-by-state basis, as it is a grey area within U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation. It is mostly used in aqua diets, governed by its price compared with fishmeal. The U.S. market differs in that meat and bone meal, which is much cheaper, is still allowed for use in pig and poultry diets. Canada has recently allowed the use of insect meal in broiler diets. Asia has led the way in the commercialization of insect meal. Use in Africa, where the cost of imported protein ingredients can be prohibitive, is also growing.

Consumer perception of insects

Another consideration when including insect meal in feed formulations is consumer perception. Shoppers have very strong opinions on what livestock eat, as has been the case for GMOs and antibiotics.

As such, the European platform PROteINSECT collected opinions on the use of insects in animal feed. Results suggested people are more accepting of the idea of insects in food and feed than might be predicted, but there is a need for continued public engagement.

Scalability of insect meal production

There are many insect-producing companies around the world including in Canada, the U.S., South Africa, France, the Netherlands, Germany and several Asian countries. Depending on their market, they are at various stages of development; in Europe for example, several are moving from pilot to commercial production in anticipation of greater demand. To feature in formulations, a reliable supply of a consistent product is needed, with accurate amino acids and trace element levels supplied.

Insect applications

Insect meal could be a valuable protein source for young pigs and poultry. Plant proteins, while economical, contain certain anti-nutritional factors that limit their use in young animals. 

“These anti-nutritional factors should be minimal in insect meal,” said Trevor Lutz, swine and poultry nutritionist at Devenish Nutrition. “It could be used as a replacement for high-quality, highly digestible animal protein sources in starter rations.”

Replacing products like soya protein isolates, as well as fishmeal, would help nutritionists formulate rations to support early performance. Although insect meal could also be used in older swine and poultry, the price may not be competitive with plant proteins such as soybean meal or canola meal.  These diets don’t generally call for the high-quality protein sources already discussed.

“For me, the nutritional value of insect meal would depend on whether it is full-fat or defatted,” Lutz said. “The level of fat can be variable depending on the fat content of the organic material on which the insects are grown.” 

He added that the fat found in insect meal is high in lauric acid, which would have antimicrobial activity against certain gram-positive bacteria. 

“Again, the value of this lauric acid would depend on whether the insect meal is defatted and the fat content of the meal if not,” he said, noting that how insect meal is dried will affect protein quality and hence the nutritional value of the product. “If it is dried at excessively hot temperatures, the availability of certain amino acids would be reduced, in which case, the value of the product as a protein source would be diminished.”

Industry opinion

“The potential for insect products in poultry diets extends beyond the supply of high-quality protein,” said Dr. Aidan Leek, Nuffield Scholar. “Insect oil is likely to feature in poultry diets before insect protein.”

He also cited the fact that certain fatty acids could have nutritional benefits beyond calorie provision and added, “There may also be functional benefits associated with the consumption of live insects by poultry, which requires further understanding.”

A key message from industry professionals is that, ultimately, whether it is used will come down to price. It may be close to the price of fishmeal, but is estimated to cost three to four times the amount as soy, at protein equivalence.

“I think the industry would be ready to accept insect meal if the product is shown to be palatable, especially in swine,” said Lutz. “Assurances of no bacterial or viral contamination would also be important.”  

Waste discussions

A major part of the debate is on what the insects will be fed. The potential to deal with organic waste is possibly helpful and harmful. In China, maggots are grown on municipal organic waste or even animal manure. In the U.S., waste from meat processing can be used. New European legislation will govern this and is likely to preclude post-consumer waste. Retailers will also undoubtedly become involved in decisions as to what can become part of the food chain.

If insects are fed on raw materials that could be fed directly to livestock, then many of the benefits are negated.

“The greatest opportunity for bioconversion is with the use of non-feed or food-grade materials; however, these materials will also present the greatest risk in terms of food safety,” said Leek.

Future implications

In summing up the findings of his Nuffield Scholarship, Leek said, “Insect protein offers a real alternative to fishmeal in feed and could offer significant environmental benefits over ocean-caught fishmeal production, particularly as demand for sustainably farmed fish increases.”

It has been predicted that insect meal will be commercially practical on price and volume by 2023.

“I think that, due to its value, insect protein will be used first in pet food and aqua feed,” he adds. “Certainly, in Europe, the poultry industry will be a third-phase adopter as economies of scale reduce insect production costs.”

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