French Parliament Wastes No Further Time – Legally Ban Major Retailers from Wasting Food

As part of a larger goal of eradicating food waste in France, the French government has taken one small step for sustainability, but perhaps one giant step for person-kind.

A common practice in France has been for stores to convert unsold edible food into unconsumables by throwing the food into trash bins and pouring bleach over them. This destroys the food so it is poisonous and completely unusable. This not only destroys any nutritional value the food may have had, but it also destroys the chances of legal liability, that is, by protecting the company from any legal cause of action if the “older” food were used for anything else. Bleaching the food ensured that there was no further use of the food remained.

Yet on 21 May 2015, this changed as the French government took a stand against food waste in a very sustainable way. It builds upon sustainability practices that can already be seen in some businesses in other countries, but in a more charitably-focused approach. The French Parliament unanimously passed a law requiring major retailers to donate their leftover foods to charity. Whilst some say this “takes a zero-tolerance approach to supermarket food waste” and “forbids retailers from destroying unsold food — and mandates they donate it to charity instead,” some may argue that this is only partially effective because it is only focuses on the large or “major” retailers. Further, the motivation for store compliance is external to the organizations out of concern for being fined, rather than being internally driven. This may change as education in this continues to grow, including an education program on food waste in France.

The new law is a major step in addressing sustainability in a positive manner by mandating positive behaviours. The law does not allow the major retailers to use their own discretion as to whether to participate or not, but rather, the law mandates participation. It is not a matter of changing behavior by the carrot and stick motivation theory, but it clearly focuses on the stick or on punishment. Under the new law, major supermarkets must separate their unsellable food into “edible” or “inedible” groups. Foods which fall into the edible category must be donated to charities for use/distribution, while inedible foods must be donated to farms and the like to be used as fertilizer or animal stock feed. The stick or punishment for businesses that do not comply with the law, whether it be by donating food or entering into appropriate agreements with charities, will be a fine of up to 75,000 Euros for noncompliance.

France wishes other countries to follow in this. Yet this law actually serves to memorialise similar business practices such as Pret a Manger’s approach of collecting its unsold foods at the end of the day and donating them to charities. Whilst Marks & Spencer and other supermarkets may mark down foods that are nearing their “sell by” expiry dates and may even discount fruits and vegetables which are not as pristine and perfect as their normal standards, they are not necessarily focused on donating to charities. These supermarkets are focused on minimizing financial loss by selling these foods at reduced prices before the food is unsellable. This new law recognizes that many of these edible foods that go to waste still have value. Yet, not only are edible foods not being consumed, but worse still, these foods are stockpiling and their subsequent breakdown contributes to unnecessary waste buildup, cesspools, pollution, degrading climate change, and having other negative global effects. A third of all uneaten foods end up in landfills. This new law will serve to reduce these stockpiles at landfills, thus further reducing the other negative downstream effects of wasting these foods.

Now there is a “catch” which is that the law applies to major retailers, not to smaller retailers. It could be argued that smaller retailers do not engage in the mass production and mass consumption of its larger counterparts, thus smaller retailers might not have as much leftovers and waste nor make a significant carbon footprint in this regard as compared to a major retailer. Also, smaller retailers may already be optimizing use of their limited resources and these “unsellable” foods. Smaller businesses may be engaged in practices that are more sustainable than throwing away edible foods. However, some pundits may argue that waste is waste among any and all stores, and the same standard should be applied across the board regardless of size and affiliations.

Whilst this may be true, major French supermarkets already appear to be against the new law. The major retailers argue that they are only responsible for 5% of the wasted food. So from this argument, the non-major retailers should also not be responsible because they waste even less. Should large and small retailers be equally accountable? Whilst it is true that individual non-major retailers may not have the capacity and resources to economically address the requirements of the new law, small businesses could coordinate and collaborate by pooling their resources to achieve their own economies of scale as a group. Whilst a major retailer would be integrated more vertically, non-major retailers could work together to be integrated across organisations, thus still achieving the same economies of scale and economies of scope to attain the same results as their larger retailer counterparts.

Then it may come down to whether the businesses’ motivation for action is by the carrot or by the stick. If businesses seek to comply with the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law, then motivation for compliance may be limited to meeting the absolute minimum requirements to avoid any financial punishment. Yet if the organisation were enlightened enough to recognise and embrace the rewards of compliance (e.g., contributing to achieving global sustainability), then their internally-driven actions may surpass the law, seeing the law as merely a starting point as opposed to the goal.

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One Response to French Parliament Wastes No Further Time – Legally Ban Major Retailers from Wasting Food

  1. skatewest says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. Australia and Singapore are both running food waste avoidance campaigns and have taken different approaches.
    In Australia we have OzHarvest ( – a perishable food rescue organisation in Australia collecting quality excess food from commercial outlets and delivering it, direct and free of charge, to 600 charities in capital and major regional cities. The founder of OzHarvest lobbied the state governments to amend legislation to allow potential food donors to donate surplus food to charitable organisations without fear of liability. In NSW, a 2011 benchmarking study found that each household is wasting more than $1000 on food a year (which I think would be a conservative estimate). With just under 2.5 million households in NSW, that’s over $2.5 biillion that is being wasted. to say nothing about the impact of the energy and water used to grow/produce the food, transport it, package it…. and so on…
    In Singapore, we have some fairly ambitious green targets – including to be a zero waste nation. The most recent food waste and recycling stats show that we still have a way to go in achieving that goal. An article in Today Online showed food recycling rates of around 13% with the majority of food waste going to waste-to-energy power plants rather than to landfill. Lack of infrastructure and culture are claimed to be two of the key reasons. Singapore does have a tendency to regulate to achieve the goals they have set so I’m sure they are watching the recent legislation changes in France with interest.

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