Should It Be Illegal for Supermarkets to Waste Food?

An activist has made it so in France. Could he take his campaign global?

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

In 2010, U.S. supermarkets and grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds, or $46.7 billion worth, of food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But if Arash Derambarsh had his way, that number would be zero. His goals are ambitious, but then again the municipal councilor from Courbevoie, France did manage to get a law passed in France last week that would accomplish just that.

The law bans supermarkets in France from discarding or destroying unsold food. According to Salon’s Lindsay Abrams, the law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to the poor. Food that is unsafe to eat is to be donated to farms for agricultural purposes. Supermarkets that exceed a certain square footage are required to sign contacts with charities by July 2016; penalties for failing to do so include fines of up to roughly $81,600 or two years in prison. The legislation is one of the world’s first attempts to address the twin problems of food waste and hunger in this manner.

The momentum for the law’s adoption came from a petition that Derambarsh launched on four months ago. On the petition site, Derambarsh explains, “On the one hand, [we have] a middle class that has more and more economic problems. … [O]n the other hand, every supermarket throws away every day more than 20 kg of food. This is unthinkable with the current economic crisis!” The appeal quickly gathered support, with over 210,000 people signing it and several French celebrities endorsing the cause.

Derambarsh told The Guardian that he first tried to tackle the problem himself by distributing unsold food from his local supermarket in Courbevoie. “Every day we’d help around 100 people. Half would be single mothers with several children, pensioners, or public workers on low salaries, the other half would be those living on the streets or in shelters.” Derambarsh told me by phone that he did all this on the street outside the supermarket after it closed for the night—an experience that inspired him to turn his campaign into national law.

Now Derambarsh is hoping to globalize his movement. He said he plans to return to within the next week with a call for an international law that mirrors the new French legislation. In coordination with the advocacy group ONE, he plans to present the issue to the European Union, United Nations, the G-20 forum of major economies, and the upcoming UN climate-change conference in Paris known as COP 21.

Any campaign to reduce food waste is likely to resonate in a world where as much as half of all food produced is never eaten. The problem stems from multiple inefficiencies and weaknesses along the supply chain, and it manifests itself differently in different regions; in developing countries, over 40 percent of waste occurs before the supermarket, while in industrialized countries over 40 percent occurs in the supermarket or the home. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) points out, leaving food uneaten not only squanders valuable resources, but also endangers the environment due to the methane that the leftover food emits in landfills.

At the core of Derambarsh’s campaign, however, is the human cost: Food that is tossed out is a meal that a hungry person will never be able to enjoy. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported on Wednesday that the number of undernourished people in the world had dropped considerably over the past 25 years despite global population growth. Even so, that leaves 795 million people without enough food to eat. For reference, about one in seven Americans lack reliable access to food, and an extra 15 percent in saved food could feed over 25 million Americans, according to the NRDC. The retail sector in the United States accounts for approximately 10 percent of the available food supply, suggesting that a law similar to the one just passed in France could make a difference in reducing U.S. food insecurity.

Still, a solution for France may not be appropriate for other countries. Across the channel in the United Kingdom, for instance, the retail sector accounts for only 1.7 percent of total food waste, according to the British charity WRAP, far below France’s 11 percent. This low percentage is at least in part due to a concerted effort by retailers, rather than the government, to develop more sustainable supply chains. British waste-reduction measures aren’t necessarily helping feed the poor, though—of the 250,000 tons of waste that U.K. supermarkets produce, less than 40,000 tons is redistributed to people.

The situation in the United States is also distinct. For one thing, the United States already has a rather robust public-private donation system in place. Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, reports that it provides food to 46.5 million people per year, or roughly the number of food-insecure people in the United States. Moreover, hidden costs may mean that a law mandating food donations could do more harm than good, according to Elise Golan, the director for sustainable development at USDA. “The logistics of getting safe, wholesome, edible food from anywhere to people that can use it is really difficult,” she said. “If you’re having to set up a really expensive system to recover marginal amounts of food, that’s not good for anybody.”

The United States also has a legal framework in place that encourages food donations. Beyond tax incentives, there is also the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which ensures that donors are not liable for harm done by donated food as long as it was given in good faith. France lacks such a safeguard for retailers, which has made supermarkets hesitant to donate foods near their expiration dates and, in more extreme cases, to pour bleach over discarded food in an effort to dissuade dumpster divers. Gaëtan Lassale, head of institutional relations and advocacy at the French Federation of Food Banks, explained to L’Express that “we regret [the practice], but it’s the only way for supermarkets to avoid being implicated in case someone gets sick after having eaten something out of their trash.” Bleaching discarded food has been explicitly banned under the new French law.

Derambarsh, for his part, doesn’t seem bothered by questions about the applicability of his campaign beyond France. When I asked about the small percentage of food waste that retailers contribute, he responded, “I don’t want to talk about the percentages. I will talk only about what I see in reality—the reality that all of the supermarkets throw out 40 kilos of food [each night]. I don’t care if it’s 1 percent or 10 percent. … My only problem is that these 40 kilos will not go to the garbage, but [instead] will go to the plates of poor people.”