How efforts to combat food waste may backfire

Food waste
Food waste

There are measures afoot in the EU to curb “food waste”. In May, a councillor called Arash Derambarsh managed to persuade the French government to pass a law that makes it illegal for supermarkets to throw away or destroy unsold food which is still “fit for human consumption”. Such food has to be donated to charities.

Similar laws are being put in place in other EU countries to prevent destruction of edible food which is close to or at its sell-by date. In France supermarkets with a floor space exceeding 400 square metres can be fined as much as €75,000 if they are found guilty of discarding food that is still edible. A global campaign in this regard has also been launched, and petitions regularly flood the internet asking for support to force all governments worldwide to prevent food waste.

Mountains of food waste

According to estimates, the EU wastes 89 million tonnes of food per annum, and worldwide up to 1.3 billion tonnes of food are thrown away each year.

Read: Waste is fast food for baboons

In 2014, researcher Dr Suzan Oelofse estimated that in South Africa we waste 10 million tonnes of food per year. In a country and a continent, which is plagued by food scarcities, hunger, food insecurity, and diminishing crops due to global warming and population pressure, food going to waste is unforgivable. But, as is so often the case with complex scenarios, making laws is not enough and targeting only large supermarkets, which often already have appropriate systems in place, is but one aspect of reducing food waste.

According to Dr Oelofse of the CSIR, there are many factors that contribute to wastage of food and water in South Africa. This includes agricultural production (26%), processing and packaging (25%), post-harvest handling and storage (24%), distribution (20%) and consumption (5%).

Transport biggest stumbling block

The most expensive of the above mentioned factors, is food distribution, which accounts for 32% of food waste in South Africa. The big issue is how to get food to needy people before it spoils.

Read: Office fridge stink sickens 28

This is a problem that has haunted me ever since I first saw mountains of fresh produce rotting on farms. The marketing manager said to me that anyone could have the food, provided they came and carted it away. And that was the problem. All the charities that could have made use of this offer were too far away or did not have the transport to come and collect the food.

In big cities it may be easier to collect perishable food from supermarkets and deliver it to needy people. Charities could set up a co-operative effort to collect and distribute this food.

Legal hurdles

Litigation often ends up being a big stumbling block for many worthy efforts – and I fear that this might happen in the case of donated food close to or past its sell-by-date.

Read: New packaging to monitor food freshness

If only one recipient of donated food from a supermarket should fall ill because of eating spoiled food, the ensuing legal action could scuttle the whole project. This pretext could easily be used as an ideal solution to poverty – sue the supermarket for damages, and you and your lawyer may never need to work again!

I would like to know how the French government intends protecting supermarkets who donate spoilable food from being sued into bankruptcy. In France and other countries this could hamper any solution to preventing food waste.

It is possible that the reason why charities so often donate only canned and dried goods to their beneficiaries is that they are wary of the legal repercussions if a perishable food such as fish, meat, bread, or fruit and vegetables causes anyone to fall ill.

Potential disasters

Local food scandals, such as “The Rotten Chicken Scandal”, have made the food industry nervous about tampering with the sell-by-date of perishable foods. In 2010, Supreme Poultry, one of South Africa’s largest chicken suppliers, had allegedly reworked raw chicken products that had passed their sell-by date. It was alleged that these potentially rotten chickens were thawed, washed, injected with brine, re-branded and then resold with new expiry dates to wholesalers or spaza shop owners.  

Read: Supreme Poultry chicken sell-by dates 'misleading'

The reaction to this and similar scenarios where e.g. used edible oil is rebottled and sold to unsuspecting buyers, and the poisoning of hungry children who eat tinned food discarded on municipal dumps, may well make many food producers and retailers hesitant to make themselves vulnerable to litigation.  

Charities are also wary

I was interested to read that some charities oppose the idea of receiving food from supermarkets that is practically expired. A representative of the Red Cross warned that it would lead to unaffordable “logistical and human costs”.

Read: Is your lunch safe to eat?

While I abhor food waste and believe that we should do everything in our power to prevent food from being thrown away or dumped, it does appear that the proposed French legislation may be opening a can of worms that could backfire on the good intentions that motivated the officials who suggested these laws in the first place.

Perhaps this should encourage us as individuals to also do our bit to help reduce food waste.

Read more:

One third wasted

Are you a food waster?

UN says eradicating hunger is possible


- Bensch F (2015). Adieu to food waste: French govt forces supermarkets to donate to charity. Reuters. Published 22 May 2015.

- City Press (2010). SACP calls for probe into ‘rotten chicken’ scandal. City Press, 29 December 2010.

- Government Printer (2010). Regulations relating to the labelling and advertising of foodstuffs. Foodstuffs, Cosmetics & Disinfectants Act 1972 (Act 54 of 1972). Gov. Gazette, No. R. 146, 1 March 2010.

- Oelofse S (2013). Food waste in South Africa/Africa: Opportunities and challenges. CSIR Presentation; Scholz, H (2010). Chicken scandal: new ‘rotten’ wings claim., 26 December 2010.

- Willsher K (2015). French councillor calls on Europe to adopt ‘food waste’ supermarket law.  Published in ‘the guardian’, 9 July 2015. ;

- Woolworths (2015). Woolworths Food Waste & Food Security Position Statement.  

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