France Passes New Law Forbidding Food Waste

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CC BY 2.0. Francois Schnell

This unprecedented step will force all large supermarkets to donate unsold food to charities or farmers.

France is cracking down on food waste with unprecedented determination. A new law has been passed in the country that will ban grocery stores from throwing away unsold food. If it’s still safe to eat, the food must be donated to charity; if not, it goes to farmers for use as animal feed or compost.

Supermarkets will no longer be allowed to destroy unsold food intentionally in order to prevent people from eating it. There are many people who forage for food in Dumpsters behind stores, wanting to take advantage of the perfectly edible food that gets thrown away on a daily basis; and yet some stores retaliate, either by locking the bins or pouring bleach into them as a deterrent, a practice that Guillaume Garot, the former French food minister who proposed the new bill, describes as “scandalous.”

Any large store over 4,305 square feet has until July 2016 to sign agreements with charities, or face fines of up to €75,000.

Food waste is a tremendous global problem, with an estimated 24 percent of calories produced for human consumption never getting eaten. Most of this waste happens at the final consumption stage. The Guardian reports that “the average French person throws out 20 to 30 kilograms (44 to 66 pounds) of food a year – 7 kg (15 lbs) of which is still in its wrapping.” American shoppers throw away about one-fifth of everything they buy at the grocery store, according to a fascinating new documentary called "Just Eat It."

Not everyone is happy about the new legislation.

A group of food foragers called Les Gars’pilleurs stated their concerns in an open letter: “Food waste is a deep problem. Don’t stay on the surface!” They are worried that the creates the illusion of doing one’s part – a “false and dangerous idea of a magic solution” – while failing to address the deeper reasons for such gross waste.

“The fight against food waste is everyone’s business… but we can’t win it unless we profoundly alter the structures within our food system that are responsible for this waste.”

The supermarkets aren’t pleased because their food waste represents only 5 to 11 percent of the 7.1 million tons of food wasted annually in France. By contrast, restaurants waste 15 percent and consumers 67 percent. “The law is wrong in both target and intent,” argues Jacques Creyssel, head of the distribution organization for big supermarkets. “[Big stores] are already the pre-eminent food donors.”

Charities need to be prepared to deal with the increased influx of fresh food, with adequate refrigeration, storage capacity, and trucks, although they will not be responsible for sifting through rotten food to salvage what’s edible. It must come to be them ready to use.

Despite the naysayers, France’s new law is a move in the right direction. Wasting food absolutely needs to become a socially abhorrent thing to do – much like tossing garbage on the ground. If legislation is what’s needed to get people thinking about conservation and edibility, then it’s not a bad thing.