From Trash to Table: Rethinking (super)market fundamentals
You probably remember, when you were a kid, your parents telling you to finish all the food on your plate. While this may seem like a forgotten childhood memory, food waste has risen to the forefront as a huge global issue. In industrialized countries, studies have shown that up to 40% of the food produced is simply thrown out. In France alone, approximately 20 to 30 kg of food are thrown away per person every year. According to the French Environmental and Energy Agency, this comes to about EUR 159 per person annually, and between EUR 12-20 billion wasted in total. Adding this to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s report that 793 million people around the world lacked sufficient food in 2015, reveals how such practices have enormous financial, and human costs, in addition to lasting environmental damages.
In an effort to address this issue, in February 2016, France became the first country to pass this type of law to help combat food waste at a national level. Approved unanimously by the French senate, this new law requires supermarkets to donate to charities any unsold food that is approaching its “best-before” date and is still safe to eat. The law also restricts the practice by some supermarkets of destroying near-expired or expired food, notably by dousing it with bleach to deter foraging through the trash bins. The argument behind these practices, supermarkets claim, is to avoid the potential legal allegations should someone fall sick.
Within this context, a grassroots movement led by a local municipal councillor from a suburb of Paris, Arash Derambarsh, mobilized citizens through petitions, to bring this issue to the national assembly. Citizen support played a significant role in transforming this idea into law. Various other local initiatives promoting food solidarity also show that France is no stranger to this topic. “Disco Soupe”, for example, is a social movement started in France in 2012, which aims to bring public attention to the issues surrounding food waste. To accomplish this, members host collective community events like “disco soupe”, “disco salads” or “disco smoothies”, where they use only fruits and vegetables which were thrown away or unsold, and serve these meals to the public along with music, dj’s or live bands. In one year, the organization reported serving 42,000 meals in 60 different cities.
As the country moves to promote these local initiatives’ goals at the national level, French supermarkets and food charities must now grapple with how to implement the policy. Such a move already has a symbolic significance to encourage other countries to consider similar policies, while representing an important step to bring food waste to the forefront of national, regional and global politics. In practical terms, however, it also represents a logistical challenge for many actors involved.
What does the law entail?
Overall, the law establishes that supermarkets with a size of 400 square meters or more must cooperate with charities to donate excess food. These types of contracts will not only allow for an increase in the quantity of food, but are expected to provide a greater diversity and quality of food donated, with more fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat. A supermarket which is caught deliberately destroying unsold food will face a fine of EUR 3,750.
The law can be found within the broader context of France’s legal framework on energy transition and environmental conservation. Within this framework, it establishes a hierarchical chain to combat food waste. At the top of the chain sits the overarching commitment to prevent food waste, including a target for France to halve its food waste by 2025, based on 2013 recorded levels. Following this are regulations requiring unsold and potentially wasted food to be donated to those in need and to be served with dignity. If food is leftover that is deemed unfit for humans, the law states that it should then be utilized for animal consumption. Finally, whatever waste remains at the end of this process should be used as compost or for agricultural purposes, with the aim of contributing to France’s overall energy transition. Products with the brand of the distributor, which would previously be returned to the supplier and destroyed, can now be donated without fear of legal ramifications or liability.
Source: French law: n° 2016-138 of 11 February 2016. Produced by Author
Challenges and opportunities
Despite the law’s and its supporters’ aspirations to decrease waste and feed the hungry, questions on the text itself and how it will be carried out remain. Critics have debated whether the law’s focus on big supermarkets is really the right way to address this issue. According to the head of the French Federation for Commerce and Distribution, large supermarkets contribute only 5 percent of total food waste, while consumers overwhelmingly represent the biggest wasters in industrialized countries. As such, they argue that effective solutions should first target consumer behaviour over corporations.
While such a critique is relevant, changing society’s behaviour will take more time, more education, awareness-raising, and a will from the population itself to alter and internalize new practices. Governments should try to raise awareness on food waste, but regulating companies via legal requirements, although a limited solution, is a practical and tangible way to begin to combat food waste. In addition, Guillaume Garot, Minister of the Food industry, emphasized that food education programs in schools embody an important aspect of the law’s successful implementation.
It is also possible that the measures laid out are not far reaching enough.The law states that a fine of EUR 3,750 will be levied on supermarkets which deliberately destroy unsold food. It remains to be seen, however, if this amount will effectively deter supermarkets from this practice, and simultaneously encourage them to cooperate with charities. Particularly when reviewing the global revenues for some of the largest supermarket chains in France, fines of EUR 3,750 may not be high enough to stop food waste.
Source: French law: n° 2016-138 of 11 February 2016; Carrefour Corporate Website. Produced by Author
Big grocery chains and corporate groups control two-thirds of France’s food retail market. Carrefour alone had 5,508 supermarkets (including small, medium and large) in France at the end of 2015, with a global annual revenue of EUR 77 billion before taxes, and 980 million in net income. As the graph above illustrates, supermarkets will have to be caught repeatedly violating the law in order for the fine to affect annual revenues. Smaller chains may also be more adversely affected by fines which represent a larger percentage of their revenue than larger chains. With this in mind, penalties in the form of fines alone may not be enough to deter bad behavior. Policy-makers could consider adding positive incentives to reward responsible practices, in addition to fines for those who refuse to comply. In the U.S., for example, tax incentives for supermarkets to donate to charities, along with laws protecting them from liability for donated food, offer benefits and protection for supermarkets. Both objectives could be taken in consideration together to more effectively push for positive behavior.
Managing the logistics of this law also come into play. With a greater influx of food donated, charities will need to adapt accordingly as well. More food will mean more space needed for storage, more hands needed to serve and more transportation to get the food where it’s needed, in particular for perishable goods like fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. All of this will require greater investment, both public and private, in addition to citizen support, to make implementation a success and get the food to those who need it most.
Supporters of the law in France have asserted that this is only the first stage, with their sights set on passing similar food waste regulations at the EU level. France’s example may well be able to serve as a model for other European countries to begin to battle their food waste and combat food insecurity. However, local contexts will need to be considered in its adaptation. Details like the percentage of food waste from supermarkets in each country, the level of development of charities and donation systems present, legal liability or tax incentive measures already in place, and the overall infrastructure to support such a law’s implementation are significant factors to ensure this policy’s successful recognition and integration.
France’s anti-waste law still represents a step in the right direction, but it is only a first step. The law could eventually be extended to include cafeterias, smaller supermarkets, restaurants, and bakeries, for example. Moreover, the role of the individual consumer as the primary culprit of food waste should not be ignored, nor is it out of reach. So the next time we go to the supermarket, eat at a restaurant, or eye that croissant in the window, we can remember what our parents told us. We can try not to waste any food on our plate, and we can as consumers be mindful of what we purchase, what we eat, and what we throw away.
For a snapshot on the issue and how France stepped up, watch our video:
French law: n° 2016-138 of 11 February 2016
French Government Website: Une nouvelle politique de l’alimentation, accessed 24 March 2016 http://www.gouvernement.fr/action/une-nouvelle-politique-de-l-alimentation
“French law forbids food waste by supermarkets” - The Guardian - 4 February 2016
“Supermarket expansion means trouble in store for France’s local shopkeepers” - The Guardian - 21 March 2011
“Should it be illegal for supermarkets to waste food?” - The Atlantic - 29 May 2015
“Les députés unanimes pour lutter contre le gaspillage alimentaire” - Le Monde - 10 December 2015
“La loi sur le gaspillage alimentaire, une fausse bonne idée?” - Liberation - 22 May 2015
Carrefour corporate website: accessed 24 March 2016
Casino corporate website: accessed 24 March 2016
Auchan corporate website: accessed 24 March 2016