Food

The companies that are rethinking the cockroach

Nov 20, 2018

They’re packed with protein, environmentally-friendly—and they’re being used as food, medicine, and trash composters.

At restaurants in major cockroach-farming regions in China, molting cockroaches, which are soft and light yellow in color, are being deep-fried, stir-fried, and seasoned with spice and salt for eating.

Stir-fried cockroaches.
Stir-fried cockroaches.

The demand for them as food inspired Li Bingcai, a cockroach farmer in Sichuan province, to get into the business.

He now sells about 20 pounds of cockroaches a month to two local restaurants, where they’re made into dishes.

“People were scared of them at first, but now so many are eating them,” Li says. “The taste is special, and they are full of protein.”

Cockroach sushi.
Cockroach sushi.

Consumption of cockroaches is not new in China, where they’ve been used in medicine to treat ulcers. What is new is the growing interest in cockroaches as food.

The number of cockroach farmers in Shandong province alone has tripled to about 400 in the past three years, according to Liu Yusheng, president of Shandong Insect Industry Association and an entomology professor at Shandong Agricultural University.

“There have been huge developments in cockroach breeding and research in the past few years,” Liu says.

Entomological elixirs

Insects such as scorpions and centipedes have long been prized in traditional Chinese medicine for their alleged curative properties.

Unlike Western medicine, which demands isolating a single active chemical substance to package into a drug, traditional Chinese pharmacists extract all the compounds in an ingredient. This means taking a variety of amino acids and peptides from an insect.

This is exactly how Good Doctor, a pharmaceutical company in Sichuan, manufactures its stomach drug Kangfuxin. The company’s two-story headquarters is home to nearly six billion cockroaches that are raised specifically to be turned into medicine.

Good Doctor’s Kangfuxin elixir.
Good Doctor’s Kangfuxin elixir. / Photo: Good Doctor Pharmaceutical

Demand for the drug has been steady enough that the factory produces 600,000 bottles a day, and its facility has grown from a modest 200 square feet in 1998 to 129,000 square feet today.

The company is now poised to open a second breeding center next year.

“The effectiveness of cockroaches has been tested by the bodies of our ancestors and proven by lab experiments,” says Geng Funeng, chairman of Good Doctor.

The ultimate composters

Cockroaches are not just being consumed; they’re also doing the consuming.

Companies like Qiaobin Agricultural Technology are breeding roaches to get rid of food waste. In the city of Zhangqiu, Shandong, where the company is based, its three billion cockroaches consume about 15 tons—about a quarter—of the city’s daily kitchen waste, according to the company’s founder, Li Yanrong.

Cockroaches devour virtually everything, says Li, and can consume up to 5 percent their own weight each day.

“They are experts in waste composting,” he says. “There is no better way of processing kitchen waste than feeding it to cockroaches.”

Waste-eating cockroaches at Qiaobin Agricultural Technology.
Waste-eating cockroaches at Qiaobin Agricultural Technology. / Photo: Qiaobin Agricultural Technology

Li founded the company seven years ago to tackle the problem of how to handle food waste, which is often burned or buried.

So far, local authorities in Zhejiang province having signed contracts with Qiaobin to set up cockroach factories to process their cities’ kitchen waste.

Li has also found a way to use the cockroaches after they die. The company bakes and mills them into high-protein powder to be added to chicken feed.

“Humans should right their wrong perceptions on cockroaches,” says Geng, the chairman of Good Doctor. “They are good insects, not pests.”

Adapted from an original article first published in the South China Morning Post.