Grasshoppers

Grasshoppers displayed at a market in Kampala, Uganda. 

| Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Yucky, nutritious, but are insects safe to eat in commercial flights?

At Kampala’s Kalerwe market, men, women and children are often seen hawking insects at this time of the year. The grasshoppers, locally known as ‘nsenene’ have been a delicacy for centuries.

Women often pounded roasted insects and fed them to their babies as a nutritional supplement.

Today, you can buy readily prepared nsenene or get a raw package and boil or roast. It is delicious when salted. But can they be served aboard a commercial airline?

The debate arose on Friday after a passenger aboard the Uganda Airlines flight to Dubai was filmed distributing the insect delicacy to other passengers as though he were hawking on board.

Hawking insects

Usually, hawking of such insects and the packaging in which he was distributing amounted to a violation of the health code for commercial airliners when it comes to food and water consumed on board.

In fact, there are usually no meals served before the aircraft ascends to cruising level.

Ugandan pilot and politician Mike Mukula observed that the sensibilities attached to aviation means no airlines can dare break these codes for the sake of it.

fried grasshoppers

A plate of fried grasshoppers.

Photo credit: AFP

“The airline or aviation industry is the most highly regulated business in the world,” he said on Saturday.

“The training is rigorous and extremely serious, there are no gaps allowed, it’s very competitive and for one to succeed especially on international flights you have to be very exposed and creative.”

There is no unanimity about the taste and quantity of food to be served on flights. But airlines must invest in meals that are safe, healthy and yet less bulky. Ugandan Airlines itself often indicates on its social media pages that “our meals bring out that smile you won’t find anywhere else on the passenger’s face.”

On its regional flights to Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and South Africa, it often gives passengers a breakfast of flat bread (chapati) and egg roll; locally known in Uganda as ‘rolex’, which can serve as ‘brunch’, the combination of breakfast and lunch. Passengers can also have bread sandwiches, yoghurt, tea or coffee, fruit juice and salad. In the wake of the video, Uganda Airlines said it was considering adding nsenene on the menu, which could make it the first airline in the region to offer insect snacks on board.

Ugandan culture

“This addition of nsenene on our menu will bring Ugandan culture to the world. Our key products are people and the experience,” it said in a statement that did not mention the safety of passengers in the incident. 

“This happened at a time our passengers were boarding, and it was disruptive. We don't condone the acts of the passenger selling nsenene and low standards of serving it to people who were buying it.”

The airline did not say how much passengers paid for the nsenene servings, but did promise investigations on how the load arrived in the cabin in the first place, which it blamed on security details at Entebbe Airport.

grasshoppers

Grasshopper vendors at a market in Kampala, Uganda. 

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

To serve nsenene or not will, however, require Uganda Airlines to consider many things, according to official health guidelines at the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Aviation Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the three global bodies regulating safety of passenger food and water.

Since 1919 when the first meal was offered on a flight, airlines have grown to adapt to both the cost and convenience of serving food on board. Today, some airlines on short-range flights have eliminated meals. And those that do offer in small portions to avoid wastage and serving expenses as well as shedding extra kilos that could come with carrying excess food, according to an explainer on travel website Holiday Extras.

Hygiene and Sanitation

IATA’s Health and Safety for Passengers and Crew and the Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation by the WHO recommend certain protocols to be followed when preparing and serving food. One of the conditions include adequate care to avoid cross contamination, especially where some passengers may be allergic to certain foods. It also recommends the water quality used for preparing the food or drinking to have certain levels of PH, minerals and no pathogens.

That means each food group should be stored in separate compartments to avoid cross contamination and meals supplied by kitchens directly under the control of the airline or where the airline has a representative to supervise preparation.

As it is, insect meals or snacks have no obvious ban, but the standards of service must follow those established by the regulators, in this case, including the Uganda Civil Aviation Authority.

Grasshopper vendors

Grasshopper vendor at a market in Kampala, Uganda.

Photo credit: Aggrey Mutambo | Nation Media Group

Frank Tumwebaze, Uganda’s Minister for Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries argues the decision to add nsenene, if it materialises, could also cause demands for the airline to add all other local delicacies, traditionally not served on board.

“If you are to add all our local delicacies, will you exhaust them?” he tweeted on Saturday.

“From nsenene, it will be mboli, ataapa, eshabwe, etc… Engage subject matter experts on aviation hospitality (F&B) to properly advise you on how to balance local and international tastes and standards.”

There is a promise in eating insects, however. A ground-breaking research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2017 suggested that insects could be the future source of food security, for humans and domestic animals.

Titled, Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, it observed that edible insects are “healthy, nutritious alternatives to mainstream staples such as chicken, pork, beef and even fish.”

Insects such as white ants and termites, grasshoppers, beetle larvae, armyworms and locusts have been eaten in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania and many other countries in Africa. In Uganda, a kilo of nsenene can sometimes cost more than a kilo of beef.

But harvesting grasshoppers will need a good climate. FAO says grasshopper eggs cannot hatch in dry seasons, which means farmers must wait for the rain to trap them, which may make their source unreliable.

“First, further documentation is needed on the nutritional values of insects in order to more efficiently promote insects as healthy food,” FAO recommended.

“Second, the environmental impacts of harvesting and farming insects must be investigated to enable comparison with traditional farming and livestock rearing practices that may be more environmentally damaging.”

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