China has passed an anti–food waste law that bans diners at restaurants from ordering more than they need, a sweeping and somewhat confusing piece of legislation that could upend the experience of eating out for millions.
The law, which came into effect last week, was part of an anti-food waste campaign that swept across the country last year after Chinese President Xi Jinping called food waste a “distressing” problem that threatened China’s food security. Filming or sharing videos of binge-eating, a type of eating shows known as mukbang, is also prohibited.
China is not facing imminent food shortages. But Xi launched a food-saving campaign in August, saying the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call that the country needed to secure its food supply. The United Nations’ World Food Programme has said supply chain disruptions during the pandemic were pushing tens of millions of people to the brink of starvation.
Local authorities in China have come up with various measures to enforce the president’s order.
Officials were sent to check for food waste at company canteens. Culinary industry groups have promoted so-called “N-1” meals, meaning the number of dishes should be less than the number of guests.
Some restaurants have pledged to offer small-portion options. One restaurant in the central city of Changsha put a scale at the entrance, and gave food recommendations according to customers’ weight.
Censors also took down the once-popular binge-eating videos from short-video sites like Douyin, TikTok’s mainland Chinese version.
About 35 million tons of food goes to waste in China every year, according to Chinese state media. In comparison, at least 66 million tons of food is wasted in the United States per year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
According to the new law, restaurants could be fined up to $1,550 for misleading consumers into ordering excessive amounts of food and causing waste.
TV stations and online media companies could be fined up to $16,000 if they were caught making or showing binge-eating videos.
The law also requires banquet organizers and diners to order the right amounts of food when eating out.
It’s not clear how regulators will enforce the rule on individual ordering, and the new law does not stipulate a fine for offenders. It’s a common practice in China for hosts to order more food than needed, especially at business or family gatherings, to demonstrate their wealth and hospitality.
On Tuesday, regulators in the eastern city of Nanjing issued the first warning under the anti-food waste law to a bakery. The shop was found to be throwing away pastries that did not look nice or could not be sold on the same day they were made.
The shop owner later promised to donate the leftovers or turn them into free samples for customers, local newspaper Yangtse Evening News reported.
Some internet users have questioned if the crackdown on food waste is going overboard and infringing on people’s freedom on their most basic form of enjoyment.
The government has also suspended a popular boy group contest this week that asked viewers to buy milk products to support their favorite contestants. Some of the drinks were reportedly poured down the drain.
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