Misinformation swirls over EU edible insects
Eurosceptics have a new bugbear, claiming that Brussels has a clandestine plan to make people eat insects in a misinformation narrative flourishing on and offline.
Recent European Union approvals for food ingredients derived from house crickets and beetle larvae, which the EU says are part of a push to find more sustainable nutrition sources, have stoked a surge in misleading claims on social media.
Some social media posts falsely suggest that there will be no labelling requirements for food containing the ingredients, or make unfounded links between the insect products and a litany of diseases.
Other posts suggest the EU approvals are further proof of a conspiracy theory that a global elite is plotting to cull humanity – this time by force-feeding people dangerous bugs.
But the wave of scaremongering has gone beyond online echo chambers.
Politicians in several European countries have variously framed the product approvals as a move by Brussels to dupe people into eating creepy-crawlies, an assault on traditional national cuisines and, at the more extreme end, a sinister masterplan that puts lives at risk.
“I don’t want locusts for my breakfast!” spluttered British arch-eurosceptic Nigel Farage.
“On the labelling of the food, it will say ‘Acheta Domesticus’. So we all understand fully what that means, obviously,” he said on the GB News channel on 27 January, referring to the scientific name for the house cricket.
Farage framed the approvals as a reason for Britain to disengage from EU food standards in what he described as a “proper Brexit”.
French senator Laurent Duplomb, of the conservative Les Republicains party, told the Senate on 25 January that French people would “eat insects without their knowledge” and that the new ingredients would be included in food “without clearly informing consumers”.
“How did we get here, having to consume crickets that come from the same family as grasshoppers or locusts, while France is the country of gastronomy and terroirs?” said Duplomb, a farmer who has criticised the EU for, he says, undermining the French agricultural sector.
What do the EU regulations actually say?
In fact, the newly approved ingredients must be listed by both their scientific and everyday names, according to labelling requirements in the publicly available European Commission authorisation documents from January 2023.
The documents state that labels on foods containing insect products must feature a warning that they may cause an allergic reaction.
The documents also explain that the ingredients have been deemed safe for human consumption through a scientific analysis by the European Food Safety Authority.
Since 2021, the EU has authorised the sale of products derived from the house cricket, the migratory locust, yellow mealworm larvae and lesser mealworm larvae, all with the same labelling requirements and health checks.
Nevertheless, in Bulgaria, where anti-EU rhetoric from some political parties is ramping up ahead of the country’s unlikely plan to join the euro in 2024, the move was presented as life-threatening.
The former interior minister and leader of the pro-Russian ABV party, Rumen Petkov, described the permissions as a “crime against Europe” in an interview with pro-Kremlin media outlet Pogled.
He accused the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — of being “prepared to kill our European children”, who he suggested would unwittingly eat the insect products in their favourite snacks.
Although the EU approvals do not make insect ingredients mandatory in any food product, some politicians framed the permissions as an imposition from which their countries must be protected by national government.
In Hungary, where tensions with Brussels have been high over frozen funds, agriculture minister Istvan Nagy warned that “traditional eating habits may be in danger” and promised the government would bring in new regulations to ensure what he said was clear labelling.
Just another euromyth?
Half-baked stories about EU regulations on everything from the bendiness of bananas to the sizing of condoms have circulated for decades.
But the idea that Brussels is obsessed with feeding insects to the people of Europe seems to be travelling more widely than other so-called “euromyths”, says Simon Usherwood, Professor of Politics and International Studies at The Open University.
“What’s interesting with this story is that it’s popping up in lots of different countries, because historically euromyths have been very country specific,” he told AFP.
“It might just be the nature of the subject — it speaks to general disgust,” he said.
Usherwood added that euromyths can have a significant impact on public opinion over time, filling a knowledge gap about the EU with tropes about bonkers Brussels bureaucrats.
“None of these stories in themselves is like the end of civilisation. It’s a quirky thing,” Usherwood told AFP.
“But it’s that cumulative drip, drip, drip aspect that reinforces prejudices and conceptions and misconceptions about what the EU is.”
Usherwood cited the example of the UK’s 2016 referendum that resulted in it leaving the EU.
“Whilst it is often meant as just a bit of fun, it also comes with an agenda that, as we’ve seen if you think about the British debate, does actually contribute over the long run to real significant shaping of public attitudes towards the European Union.
“With the (Brexit) referendum, for a lot of people, if you said ‘bendy bananas’ it was a thing you knew about. In terms of what (the EU actually) did, most people didn’t know.”