On 21st May the French National Assembly set aside party political differences and voted unanimously in favour of proposed legislation to curb food waste. The current text, which will be debated next by the French Senate, includes a requirement for supermarkets larger than 400 square metres to donate edible food past its sell-by date to charities and associations. Elsewhere in the proposed law is a ban on pouring bleach over edible food to render it unfit for consumption. A parallel set of requirements will be imposed on foodservice operations, including public sector organisations such as schools and hospitals, as well as work canteens.

Guillaume Garot

Guillaume Garot

The proposed legislation is being helped through the French parliamentary system by former food minister Guillaume Garot, who started work on this topic while he was still at the agricultural ministry. He laid out his objectives and the reasoning behind the new law in a parliamentary report published in April: while the final law will probably be quite close to what its author intended, it may not be a carbon copy.

The French food waste campaign makes a distinction between edible food that ends up in the waste stream and other forms of food waste, such as kitchen waste or food that is rotten. The distinction is a simple one: if food can still be consumed, it should be kept out of the waste stream.

According to figures on the food ministry website, France wastes more than 20 kilos of edible food per person every year – that’s 1.2 million tonnes of food that could have been eaten, but was thrown out. This figure is a subset of the 6.5 million tonnes of total domestic food waste, which includes the inedible as well. The retail sector adds 2.3 million tonnes of further food waste and the foodservice industry 1.5 million tonnes, making a total of more than 10 million tonnes a year across a range of outlets and end users. A public education campaign to cut domestic food waste has been in hand since 2011, and has generated a 10-point checklist for reducing food waste. It suggests [as translated by the author]:

  • Purchase food in appropriate quantities and plan meals ahead.
  • When shopping, buy chilled products last.
  • Observe the ‘chill chain’ temperature recommendations included on the packaging for refrigerated foods.
  • Read the labels and make a distinction between ‘consume by’ dates and ‘best before’ dates, which apply to different categories of food products in France.
  • Store food logically in the fridge and clean the fridge regularly.
  • Freeze food for the longest storage period.
  • Incorporate leftovers from previous meals into new dishes.
  • Whether eating out or at home, don’t have eyes larger than your stomach.
  • At the end of a meal, only throw away leftovers that cannot be kept.
  • Share fruit, vegetables or last night’s leftovers with neighbours.

In total, the French food chain loses or wastes 140 kilos of food per person between the field and the dustbin. That’s about five times the 20 to 30 kilos of food waste a year that is attributed directly to consumers. Official guesstimates of the monetary value such waste represents range from €12 billion and €20 billion. Garot warns that this waste is “… the sign of a system of production and consumption in crisis”.

It is not hard to spot a problem in the making. French supermarkets account for just over 70% of the country’s household food spend. The retailers have ways of choking off overstocks before they even leave the supplier – retailers have been bending the rules for years, with impunity, often making business very hard for those they work with and leaving much of the waste with the supplier.

Stocks of food produced to order for supermarkets, especially dried and canned goods, are not always collected (“taken up”) or paid for. For example, retailers will place orders for canned tomatoes once a year, before the canneries start packing the tomato harvest. Retailers often over-order stock, which means additional wages and other packing line costs for the canner. The canner is out of pocket until the retailer has collected and paid for the goods, which have been ordered up to a year previously. While this may be manageable with canned goods, which are not labelled until the consignment is despatched, it is a nightmare for ‘own label’ dry groceries in retail packaging. Garot’s suggestion that food manufacturers should be able to donate refused or cancelled orders is well meant, but it sidesteps the delicate question of whether or not the donor should see a return on the work and resources that were invested in the manufacture. It effectively becomes an enforced donation because the goods the food manufacturer produced were not claimed or paid for by the retailer.

Everyone agrees that food waste is a bad thing. But opinions vary as to what to do about it. Headstrong supermarket boss Michel-Edouard Leclerc mounted a vitriolic attack on Garot’s proposed law on his personal blog. Accusing politicians of jumping on the food waste bandwagon, Leclerc claims that retailers have long since stopped pouring bleach over discarded food. His blog aimed to deflect criticism of retail practices.

Leclerc’s retail ‘members’ as they are called, already donate 24,000 tonnes of food a year to good causes, a quarter of which goes to food banks. No less than 95% of Leclerc store owners already have agreements in place for donations to associations – indeed half of them already donate food to three or more charities.

Leclerc also argues in his blog that significant resources are needed to store and manage certain categories of food. For instance, chilled goods require greater skill to manage at the end of their shelf lives than they do on arrival at a supermarket, especially meat and fish. When their shelf life is running out, decisive culinary action is required. There are plenty of volunteers who can cook off a batch of fading food, but the risk of things going wrong is higher the closer the food is to the end of its shelf life. Garot, however, has a plan B and C for perishable foods in need of alternative end uses: animal feed (depending on the foodstuffs involved) and methanisation – turning food waste into energy – are both recommended as last resorts.

There is good reason to give Garot credit for his forward-looking political vision, including the promotion of local food and short supply chains in his proposed legislation, and setting up local and regional food waste reduction schemes. He also has a sense of history: gleaning is still authorised under a French royal edict of 1554. One revolution and five republics later, Garot is keen to retain it in law and make it applicable to the 21st century.

Photograph: USDA

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