Large French supermarkets will soon be prohibited by law from throwing away or destroying unsold food. Instead, they will have to sign donation contracts with charities such as food banks. They will also be obliged to stop deliberately spoiling food in order to prevent it from being eaten by people foraging in stores’ bins. Non-compliance will be fined.
The law imposes some rules on the recipients, too: it is upon them to ensure that the food is collected and stocked in properly hygienic conditions, and that it is distributed “with dignity”. This means the food must be given out at a qualified food bank or centre.
Reactions to the law have been generally – or maybe even: overwhelmingly – positive. The cheer by food banks is not surprising, of course: all across Europe, for many years they have struggled to achieve workable arrangements with many individual supermarkets or chains, and to ensure a proper stock for an increasing user base. The less fortunate among us, who are to a large extent dependent on food distributed by food banks, will certainly stand to benefit hugely. The law should definitely be greeted from that perspective.
Yet, the initiative also gives rise to some further thought.
First, it is remarkable for a government to embrace an institution whose mere existence is an indication of government failure in fighting poverty. Many governments have indeed been reluctant to openly recognise the societal benefits of food banks since their emergence in the late eighties. Full-blown legislative support, if followed by other nations, would be nothing less than a U-turn. On the other hand, with the number of people that use food banks steadily increasing (according to the European Federation of Food Banks), politicians can no longer ignore the role private and not for profit organisations such as food banks can play.
Second, adding a new layer of regulation is likely to lead to more red tape, which is not particularly popular among most retailers, with their ever so small margins. Don’t get me wrong: for economic reasons, it might well make sense for retailers to donate surplus food products. Food waste and its disposal adds costs to a business, and it has an environmental impact as it puts pressure on land and natural resources. Considerations such as these have led many retailers to donate their food surplus. Yet again, shouldn’t businesses be allowed to weigh pros and cons from a commercial perspective themselves, rather than the government telling them how to behave?
This links to a third afterthought: the acclaim for the initiative by supermarkets is somewhat surprising. Sure, opposing such a good cause would not go well with the general public (consumers!). Yet many retailers already donate their unsold products to charity: French supermarket giant Carrefour welcomed the law, referring to the food donations its supermarkets already make. Dutch Royal Ahold has its “Better Neighbour Initiatives”; Tesco has its “Neighbourhood Food Collection” scheme and German METRO Group calls its program “Care & Share”. These are only a few examples, but what these laudable initiatives have in common is that they are voluntary. As such, they fill many pages in retailers’ Corporate Social Responsibility reports, both off line and online. And whilst no-one will question the intentions behind retailers’ commitments, making them obligatory would mean they could hardly be presented as expressions of a company’s efforts to improve the communities they operate in. Efforts that are often rewarded by investors and consumers alike.
So now what?
The change to the French law was sparked by the efforts of a local councillor in a Parisian suburb. The same councillor urges the United Nations and the EU to take action on an international level. Indeed, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, including a target to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains. As part of its Circular Economy Package, the European Commission said it plans to “take measures to clarify EU legislation relating to waste, food and feed, and facilitate food donation”. As a first step the Commission work with Member States and stakeholders to develop EU food donation guidelines for food donors and food banks. But with the Commission announcing to “take measures”, binding rules are never an impossibility.
Preventing food waste certainly deserves support in the fight against poverty. It is also a place where retailers play a pivotal role. It is questionable though whether legislation leads to better results than corporate initiatives, provided appropriate means and efforts are invested into them.

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Authored by: Mathijs Peters Mathijs Peters