The headlines are in and they are incredulous: insect burgers! On sale! In a Swiss supermarket chain!
In May, Switzerland was the first European country to pass legislation permitting insects to be bred in regulated conditions and sold purely for human consumption. Essento is one of the first companies to take advantage of this legislation, but what’s particularly notable is that they’re doing this on a national level. They’re not content to test their alternative product in a health food store. Essento is going straight to Coop, one of Switzerland’s largest wholesale and retail companies that was also awarded the “World’s Most Sustainable Retailer” by German research agency oekom research AG.
Essento produces burger patties and meat balls made primarily from mealworms with spices, vegetables and rice or chickpeas thrown in for extra flavor. As of now, the worms are bred in Belgium, but the company plans to move production to Switzerland in the near future. They also sell toasted grasshoppers with flavorings, but these have been largely overlooked for the more shock-inducing burgers and meatballs.
When describing their products, Essento is careful to make insects seem like an exciting, safe food. These are special occasion foods, not your everyday go-to. The website claims their burgers the perfect excuse to prolong summer barbecue season. Meanwhile, the meatballs stuffed into pita and dressed in yogurt sauce will remind you of that time you went on vacation in the Middle East. If Grasshoppers are more your fancy, you can find inspiration from Essento’s gourmet insect cookbook, Grillen, Grasshoppers & Co.
The emphasis on the product’s uniqueness continues with the packaging, which proudly proclaims that Essento is the food “revolution.” Both the meatballs and burgers come in long, vertical boxes with black and white graphics. The word “insect” is prominently featured on the box, immediately alerting the customer to the novelty of what inside. There are two burgers per package or ten meatballs, suggesting that the producers realize people might be hesitant to buy a large package of something they’re unsure they’ll want to eat. Essento for being revolutionary, still sees itself as a one-off product selling a novel way of consuming, as opposed to a true paradigm shift in how people consume protein.
For the time being, Essento is only sold at select stores in Zurich, Basel, Bern, Winterthur, Lugano, Lausanne and Geneva. But there are only certain species and certain conditions that deem insects appropriate for humans. You may breed crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms, and they need to be bred under supervision for at least four generations before they are safe for Swiss supermarket shelves
Reading the description smacks of a human prejudice to the idea of eating ‘dirty’ foods. Although bugs are culturally associated with unkempt areas in much of Europe, the fact of the matter is that insects have been eaten around the world for centuries without such stringent measures. This legislation might help make it more mentally palatable for some consumers to eat “bug burgers” by giving them a clean mark, but it also reinforces the culturally blind notion that bugs and dirty and bad.
That being said, it’s interesting to see that even a wealthy and affluent European country is taking the project of using insects to create a more sustainable food source. If Essento does well in Switzerland, then it should pave the way for more broad European acceptance of insect-related food products. While Essento and other potential brands still need to fight against a cultural prejudice toward bugs, displaying them in clean, modern, packaging in a supermarket is a step in the right direction.