Modern supermarkets may display mountains of fresh produce when you walk in the door, but there's a downside to the colorful cornucopia. As those fruits and vegetables approach or pass their sell-by dates and become less visually appealing, a lot of food is regularly thrown away. The same applies to other perishables that are stocked in abundance. To fight food waste, a new law in France will prevent supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food.
The French law is the first of its kind in the world. French supermarkets will now have to donate food that would be destroyed or destined for the trash to charities and food banks instead. The law, which applies to any supermarket larger than 400 square meters, was passed unanimously by the French Senate on Wednesday. Companies that fail to comply face fines of up to 75,000 euros or two years in prison.
The law is the result of a grassroots campaign that now hopes to persuade the rest of the EU to adopt similar legislation. Other countries have optional programs that facilitate grocery stores donating food to charities, but regulations often mean food ends up in the trash.
Jacques Bailet, the head of the French food bank network Banques Alimentaires, told The Guardian that the law is "positive and very important symbolically." It will allow the food banks to provide more meals and more nutritious meals.
"In terms of nutritional balance, we currently have a deficit of meat and a lack of fruit and vegetables," Bailet told The Guardian. "This will hopefully allow us to push for those products."
Most food is perfectly safe to eat after it passes its sell-by date, which is a manufacturer's estimate of when a food passes its peak taste and best appearance. Sell-by dates actually serve as a guide for grocers more than consumers—they tell grocers when to remove items from shelves. Consumers should be more focused on "use by" or expiration dates.
Supermarkets in France have poured bleach on food in the past or stored it in locked warehouses to keep away dumpster-divers, purportedly to prevent foragers from contracting food poisoning after eating the discarded food.
France isn't alone. Food waste is a global problem, though it is much more so a problem in Western countries where "sell by" dates and food appearance play a greater role. In the United States, every year we throw out 133 billion pounds of food, or one-third of all food produced in the country. Business Insider reports that grocery stores account for 10 percent of that waste, and that food waste is built into the grocery business model.
Fighting food waste will be crucial not only to feeding a growing global population, but to fighting climate change, too. Convincing people that there's plenty of life left in discarded food is a good start. If chefs can turn discarded food into haute cuisine that is fit for presidents and UN reps, a top-down policies like France's can help. There are plenty of hungry people who couldn't care less about a "sell-by" date or a bruise on an apple.