France outlaws throwaway culture

Two years ago, France became the first country in the world to pass a law compelling large retailers to donate food that would otherwise be thrown away. How effective has it been in reducing the amount of food that ends up in the garbage?

France introduced a law in February 2016 forcing supermarkets to redistribute unsold food that had passed its expiry date but was still edible. The move made it one of the leading countries in the fight against food waste.

As in other countries, food waste had become a huge issue in France. Estimates put the amount of food each person threw away each year at 20kg, of which 7kg was still packaged. In total, 140kg person was lost every year in the food supply chain, costing up to 20 billion euros in total. Of the 7.1 million metric tons of food wasted in France each year, 67% is binned by consumers, 15% by restaurants and 11% by retailers.

The law sought to tackle this by providing incentives for retailers to donate the food they would ordinarily throw away to charity and penalizing them for not doing so.

“The tax rebate is way more effective than any legal obligation”

- Laura Chatel, Zero Waste France

Strong incentives

Under the legislation, any shop exceeding 400m² has to offer a charity a contract for the donation of its food waste. They are also prohibited from deliberately ‘spoiling’ edible food waste by, for example, contaminating it with bleach, as had been common practice. Any business that donates food can deduct 60% of its value from the tax it pays. It’s a strong incentive, particularly as it also includes transport and storage costs if the supermarket takes care of these as well.

“The legislation is interesting because it created a hierarchy for tackling food waste. Prevention of surplus is now the most preferred option and sending to landfill the least preferred,” says Laura Chatel of Zero Waste France, a food waste NGO.

But how effective has the law been in tackling food waste? Two years on, the verdict is mixed. According to Susan Hansen, Global Strategist Food & Agri Supply Chains at Rabobank, legislation in isolation is only a part of the answer.

“Social media can have more impact on retailers than legislation”

- Susan Hansen, Rabobank

A flawed measure

“The French law has its flaws. For instance, it does not state a minimum percentage of food beyond its expiry date that should be donated,” she says. “In addition, it can be a massive logistical challenge for charities who do not have the resources to collect, store, cool, and distribute the extra food.”

For Laura Chatel, that is where the legislation is most flawed. “The state could compel supermarkets to handle logistics if the charity can't, and make that a condition for the tax rebate,” she says. “At the moment, supermarkets can only gain: they get rid of food waste, they don’t have to pay for treatment costs, and they benefit from the tax incentive. In all honesty, the tax rebate for donation is way more effective than any legal obligation.”

Hansen agrees legislation can only go so far in tackling food waste. “I think pressure groups or consumers via social media can have an even larger impact on retailers and food companies than legislation does,” says Hansen. “They can force supermarkets to ‘voluntarily’ make changes and turn that into a competitive advantage.”