French supermarkets enter voluntary food waste agreement

Supermarkets in France have agreed to a voluntary commitment to preserve unsold food stocks and encourage its redistribution to community projects, after an emergency meeting yesterday (27 August).

Under the commitment, stores over 400 square metres will be obliged to enter donation agreements with food redistribution charities for unsold fresh produce, and the act of spoiling unsold food stock will be banned.

The measures had been written into the recent bill on Energy Transition, and were approved by both the National Assembly and Senate – the two legislative branches of the French parliament.

French supermarkets enter voluntary food waste agreementHowever, prior to the law being passed two weeks ago (13 August), the articles relating to food waste were taken out by the Constitutional Council, who ruled that as they were late additions to the law, having been introduced in the second reading rather than the first, there had not been adequate time to consider them.

This prompted French Minister of Ecology and Sustainable Development Ségolène Royal to hurriedly arrange a meeting with large retailers to discuss a voluntary agreement to bypass the law-making process.

She suggested at the time that had the voluntary commitment not been agreed, the measures would be pursued in future laws, and that retailers that were unwilling to engage would be named publically.

Several retailers and trade associations had reacted negatively to the introduction of the measures to the energy bill. The French Federation of Commerce and Distribution (FCD) claimed that retailers account “for only five per cent of food waste” and are “pre-eminent food donors”, with more than 4,500 stores having already signed agreements with aid groups.

At the meeting, however, representatives of all large French supermarket groups agreed to the commitment.

Speaking after the meeting, Royal said: “We went in with a rather tense atmosphere. But the signatories have stated that they were interested to engage voluntarily and they did it with a good spirit.”

Details of the voluntary commitment

There are five conditions set out in the voluntary commitment convention for supermarkets.

Supermarkets must set up food waste prevention actions. The commitment reads: ‘The fight against food waste means to empower and mobilise producers, processors, distributors, consumers and associations’. It sets out that retailers must seek to prevent food waste as priority and then ensure clean, unsold food is made available for human consumption through ‘donation or transformation’.

This condition also obliges retailers to introduce training and awareness programmes for all stakeholders and to take up regular communication with consumers.

Retailers will be unable to intentionally destroy unsold food supplies. When the measures were first introduced to the Energy Transition law, Guillaume Garot, the former Minister for Food who sponsored the bill, claimed that it was common practice for supermarkets to pour bleach into their bins to destroy food and prevent its illegal removal, a practice he called ‘scandalous’.

All stores over 400 square metres must establish donation agreements with authorised charities. A framework will be established whereby supermarkets are obliged to donate their unused food stock to contracted food redistribution charities.

Retailers must immediately take up the Energy Transition law’s provisions regarding the best-before dates. Under rules written into the law, retailers must abolish ‘best-before’ dates on non-perishable products like sugar and vinegar, often mistaken for ‘use-by’ dates, and take steps to ensure suppliers do not underestimate best-before dates.

Finally, manufacturers can no longer prohibit supermarkets from donating of private label products.

As part of the agreement, Royal herself committed to initiate a national campaign against food waste, promote access to funds for actions against food waste and set up a working group with stakeholders (manufacturers, distributors and the Ministry of Agriculture) on improvements to the regulation applicable to use-by dates.

Agreement just 'an empty shell' with no penalties or details

Speaking to Resource after the commitment was announced, Arash Derambarsh, the councillor from Courbevoie behind the original amendment, did not believe that the agreement was any substitute for legal regulation.

He said: “This ‘agreement’ is an empty shell. Ms Royal has no hands on the law so she wants to look good before COP 21 (the Conference of Parties, including the Climate Change conference, taking place in Paris in December). 

“This agreement is a pure communication operation because there is no constraint, no penalty: bleach will continued to be used without penalty.

“Moreover, it does not concern any mass distribution. Indeed, two thirds of supermarkets in France are franchisees. So even if the big bosses make commitments, it is in fact the directors of stores that handle things and nothing says that this will be respected. We must therefore put all the signs and all franchises on the same footing. 

“Finally, this agreement does not indicate at all what associations we speak of. Who will come and collect unsold consumables? Only accredited associations that can store food (for example Restaurants du Coeur, Catholic Relief, Food Bank) or any unauthorized associations (for immediate distribution as we have practiced in Courbevoie)? 

“We therefore need a clear and precise law.  Thus, a new bill is redeposited in the National Assembly by Frédéric Lefebvre and Jean-Pierre Decool.”

New law to fight food waste tabled

A new law presented by ministers Lefebvre and Decool, and backed by 26 other politicians, aims to further the fights against food waste by mobilising producers, processors, distributors, consumers and assocations through prevention, redistributions for humans and then animals and finally, use as compost or energy.

The proposals for the law state that 41 per cent of French respondents to a 2013 survey said they had experienced poverty, and that 62 per cent of lone mothers had admitted to having encountered difficulties in obtaining a healthy and balanced diet for their children.

Before its removal from the Energy Transition law, the measures had gained publicity around Europe, with UK charity FareShare describing it as “an interesting development in the debate around food waste”, especially as “the majority of surplus food is further up the supply chain”.

Derambarsh has already started a petition to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative, an official appeal to the European Commission (EC) to enact legislation across the European Union. To date it has over 630,000 of the million required signatures to force the EC to consider the initiative.

Read the voluntary commitment signed by French supermarkets or read more about the worldwide issue of food waste.

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