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France battles food waste by way of law

Elizabeth Bryant, ParisApril 19, 2016

France has become the world's first country to ban supermarket waste and compel large retailers to donate unsold food. While many charities hail the legislation, some worry about their capacity to handle the extra food.

If bananas or carrots have just a few spots on them, or the leaves of spring onions are not that perky anymore, supermarkets usually throw these foods awayImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Medina

In a refrigerated room of the massive Carrefour supermarket in western Paris, director Soed Toumi points to carts piled high with food: Packs of yoghurt and pudding, slightly stale pastries, and baguettes. In a matter of hours, the food will be carted away for distribution to the needy.

Legislation passed in February makes France the world's first country to ban supermarket waste and compel large retailers like Carrefour to donate unsold food – or face a fine of 3,750 euros ($ 4,230).

The law is a first stab at rethinking consumption practices in a country where an estimated 7 million tons of food is thrown away each year. While consumers are the biggest culprits, restaurants and stores account for about a quarter of food waste.

But when it comes to her store, Toumi says the law doesn't change much. The supermarket donates the equivalent of 320,000 meals each year to four local charities.

"We've already been fighting against waste," she says. "But if the law allows others to follow our example, why not?"

Carrefour Director Soed Toumi © Elizabeth Bryant
Soed Toumi says the law will push other supermarkets to follow the example set by CarrefourImage: DW/E. Bryant

Not all French supermarkets boast similar practices. The average store is believed to throw away roughly 20 kilos of unsold food each day. Some have reportedly poured bleach on products, rendering them inedible – ostensibly to avoid food poisoning and legal problems.

A larger revolution?

"The situation is very simple," says Arash Derambarsh, a municipal councillor in the Paris suburb of Courbevoie. "On the one hand, we have supermarkets that throw away kilos of unsold food every day. On the other, faced with this absurdity, we have millions of poor and homeless people."

Derambarsh is no stranger to poverty. As a 20-year-old student, he struggled to make ends meet, spending half of his small income on rent.

"I was hungry and ashamed of admitting it," he wrote in his book titled 'Manifeste contre le gaspillage,' or 'Manifesto Against Waste.' "I wanted to turn it into a positive experience so others would not end up in this situation."

Last year, he began collecting unsold supermarket food with friends and volunteers and distributing it to the homeless. They launched an online petition for a supermarket waste law that quickly gathered steam and finally did become law.

Today, he is taking his campaign global, urging the European Union and countries like the United States to follow suite. "This is a long road, but we are going to end up being more human," he says.

From laggard to leader

Change is already afoot. Countries like Germany and Britain have taken measures to reduce food waste. In Denmark, a new "waste supermarket" is drawing crowds, who snap up surplus food at discount prices. Ahead of France, several Belgian towns also began banning supermarket waste.

Indeed until recently, France was considered a laggard in the fight against waste.

But as of this year, restaurants are now encouraged to offer doggy bags so customers can take home unfinished meals, a standard practice in the US and Britain that remains a novelty here. Those generating more than 10 tons of waste are now legally obligated to recycle it.

So-called 'doggy bags' in France
In France, even the 'doggy bags' in which restaurants pack up leftovers have some style.Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Ksiazek

Toumi says Carrefour is fighting waste on several fronts. The store has a special team that sorts through products, removing those past their shelf life and repackaging others, like solitary bananas, to be sold at a discount.

Boxes of slightly blemished raspberries are picked through, the rotten fruit discarded and the rest used to decorate cakes. Day-old croissants and pain au chocolate are transformed into almond pastries.

"We're careful to buy in smaller quantities and we're careful to rotate products in the fridges," Toumi adds.

Unsold food with a shelf life is mostly donated. The rest, along with food past its sell-by date, is turned into biofuel that powers the supermarket's delivery trucks. The store has also removed sell-by dates for products like sugar and salt that are not perishable.

Feeding more people

"It's really a state of mind," Toumi says, "for citizens as well."

Selecting from the piles of pears in Carrefour's fruit section, shopper Jean-Marie Gamas gave a thumbs-up to the new legislation and said he was selective about what he ate at home.

"It depends on the food. I eat yoghurts and other dairy products past their sell-by dates," he says. "But never chicken."

The new food-saving App

French charities and food banks also welcome the new supermarket waste law.

"It will allow us to feed more people and provide a more diversified food basket," says Louise Saint-Germain, who heads a Paris-area association that receives Carrefour donations and is called ' Une Main Tendue Pour Demain,' or 'A Hand Held Out for Tomorrow,'

"Every day more people are out of work. This helps them manage their budget and gives them the energy to fight to improve their daily lives and find work."

Changing consumption habits

But some worry the legislation will lead to more donations than they can handle.

"We simply don't have to technical and logistical ability to distribute more food to more people," says Aline Chassagnot, who manages a Salvation Army "social grocery" store just outside Paris. "And we're not the only ones."

Beyond a supermarket waste ban, she believes, the country needs to reconsider larger issues surrounding consumption and sharing.

"Yes, there's waste and there are poor people," she says. "But really taking into account a person's needs and dignity might mean another way of thinking that's not so simple."