A landmark new law passed by France’s Parliament early this year prohibits supermarkets from destroying or throwing away food that is approaching its sell-by date, forcing grocers to instead donate unsold food to charities and food banks.
Grocery stores often pull items out of stock several days before their sell-by dates, but sell-by, use-by, and best-by dates are guidelines that indicate peak freshness and not food safety. Most foods are still good to eat long after the sell-by date.
The law, which was passed unanimously by the French Parliament, stems from a grassroots campaign and Change.org petition led by a municipal councilor from Courbevoie, France. Councilor Arash Derambarsh gained support for the law from consumers, anti-poverty campaigners, and those advocating for food waste reduction. The law is the first piece of legislation to address the joint problems of food waste and hunger in this way.
Large French supermarkets—those at least 400 square meters in size—must sign donation contracts with charities by July of this year or face fines. The law also makes it easier for food producers to donate excess products directly from factories, and food that is not fit for human consumption is to be donated to farms.
An estimated 7.1 million tons of food are wasted in France each year, and 11 percent of that waste is produced by grocery stores.
Globally, one-third of all food produced for human consumption is not ultimately consumed.
In the United States, 40 percent of all food that is produced (worth about $165 billion annually) goes uneaten. In 2008, 10 percent of the total food supply that reached U.S. grocery stores was wasted.
When food is wasted, so are the resources that went into producing and distributing it. Food production accounts for 10 percent of the energy and 80 percent of the fresh water consumed in the U.S. while using 50 percent of the nation’s land.
With one in seven Americans lacking reliable access to enough food to meet nutrition needs, targeting retail food waste and increasing donations can be an effective strategy for addressing hunger. If the United States were to cut its food losses by just 15 percent, that would provide enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans each year.
Food waste is also the single largest component of municipal solid waste in the United States. Globally, landfills contribute nearly 5 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions and 12 percent of total methane emissions.
In several Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, food waste makes up 50 to 70 percent of municipal solid waste. Limiting food waste can simultaneously reduce emissions, help feed the food insecure, and ease the pressure on what are in some cases already-stressed municipal solid waste management programs.
As urban populations around the world continue to grow, the question of how to best manage solid waste becomes increasingly pressing. In its 2012 “What a Waste” report, the World Bank predicted a 70% global increase in urban refuse by 2025.
While more efficient and innovative solid waste management practices, increased recycling, and reductions in household waste can help cities alleviate some of the challenges surrounding waste management, legislative approaches like the new French law can lessen the amount of food waste occurring further up the supply chain.
In a recent Guardian article, Derambarsh stated that he is now looking to reduce food waste in other sectors in France and to scale the approach up, claiming that, “The next step is to ask the president, Francois Hollande, to put pressure on Jean-Claude Juncker and to extend this law to the whole of the EU. This battle is only just beginning. We now have to fight food waste in restaurants, bakeries, school canteens and company canteens.”
The United States has a legal framework in place that encourages food donations by grocery retailers as well as a strong public-private donation system. The U.S. set its first-ever national food waste reduction goal in 2015, calling for a 50 percent reduction by 2030. The most recent United Nations Sustainable Development Goal regarding food waste (target 12.3) similarly sets a global target of cutting per capita food waste in half by 2030.
Further efforts to decrease loss and waste along the food production supply chain as well as at the consumer level can help move us closer to these targets while ensuring that less food that is safe for humans to eat ends up in landfills.
The legislative approach that France has taken to limit its grocery sector food waste is an historic first and is a step in the positive direction of reducing food waste at the retail level, diverting waste from landfills, and providing food to people in need.
French law forbids food waste by supermarkets (The Guardian)
French Parliament Unanimously Approves Law to Cut Food Waste (Time Magazine)
Should It Be Illegal for Supermarkets to Waste Food? (The Atlantic)
How Food Waste Costs Our Cities Millions (World Resources Institute)
Best Enjoyed By (99 Percent Invisible Podcast)
People Need to Stop Throwing Out Food Because It Passed the Sell-By Date (Business Insider)