The French Revolution

Written by: Maxine Perella, freelance journalist | Published:

Maxine Perella talks to the French councillor whose groundbreaking food waste campaign has brought about major legislative change across the Channel, and asks if a similar law – forcing retailers to give their surplus food to charities – could work in the UK

We are human. Hunger and thirst is so fundamental to that." Arash Derambarsh, the French councillor whose passionately staged campaign against food waste led to a monumental law change in France, reflects on why his idealism has captured the hearts and minds of so many. "For me, it's not an amazing thing [that I achieved]. We are living in global times and the fight that I started in my city, Courbevoie, is the same across the world."

The Macron Law

The legislation, part of a wider bill called the Macron Law, was due to be officially passed in France at the end of June. It requires food retailers over a certain size (effectively supermarkets) to donate their unsold surplus food to approved 'associations' or charities – either those that can store food in cold-room facilities, or those that can't.

Under the law, the latter would be required to immediately redistribute any donated food that same evening.

Derambarsh says he now plans to take his crusade international.

"The same thing that I did in my country, we will do it in Europe. We have got lots of endorsement. I'm receiving around 1,000 messages a day of support." And he might just be onto something. Already a similar petition up and running in the UK calling for David Cameron to follow France's example has received more than 175,000 signatures.Whether or not a similar law could work over here remains questionable, but food waste experts feel that France has sent out a powerful message.

Trewin Restorick, founder of Hubbub – a UK-based charity that has created its own food waste manifesto calling for supermarkets, governments and individuals to make a change – says the law is significant for two reasons: "It shows government willingness to intervene in something where they clearly feel insufficient action is being taken. [And] It sends a strong message to laggard organisations that they need to act."

Driving change

Dr Anne-Marie Bremner, director at Encycle Consulting, says the French law is likely to form "one of a suite of policy tools – albeit rather a blunt one – to drive change". She notes that some French supermarkets are already quite active on the food waste front.

Intermarché, for example, last year launched a creative consumer-facing campaign called 'Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables' to celebrate the more misshapen produce on its shelves. It soon proved popular, and the supermarket now sells a range of soups and juices made from the crops.

France is also tackling food waste further up the supply chain. Lindsay Boswell, CEO at FareShare, says that the French food industry, government and associated charities have already made huge inroads in this area, particularly among manufacturers, where the majority of surplus occurs.

He points out that France currently redistributes 20 times more surplus food than the UK – around 25% of its total arisings.

"All of the calculations that we've done indicate that if we could match France and redistribute 25% of the surplus food that our 21 years of experience has shown us is in the supply chain … if we could get that 25% diverted, the food industry surpluses could be the second-largest funder of the voluntary sector after the Big Lottery," says Boswell.

Key concern

There's certainly a strong social argument, as well as a growing economic one, to go after more charitable redistribution of food waste in the UK. However, the capability of charities to deal with the extra tonnages involved remains a key concern – it's an issue that has already been highlighted in France.

"The [French] law will only work effectively if charities have the capacity to respond," observes Hubbub's Restorick. "Charitable infrastructure is notoriously fractured and it will undoubtedly struggle to cope. Hopefully supermarkets will work closely with charities helping them to build their ability to effectively distribute the collected food.

"There is a danger though that the supermarkets will simply pass the burden onto the charity sector without providing the associated resources." Boswell feels, however, that the burden should not fall solely on the food industry.

"Where do you draw the line?" he asks.

"I think the food industry would be prepared to put some funding in, but if we get into a narrative that says it is the food industry's responsibility to solve food poverty, then I think justifiably they will push back on that. We've got responsibilities around resource management, but let's be realistic about what our role and remit is here."

The bigger picture

Dr Bremner would like to see the food industry concentrate its efforts more on the bigger picture – waste prevention upstream of the supply chain. "Supermarkets have a big opportunity here, including changing their specifications, reprogramming consumers that vegetables shouldn't be 'perfect' looking, and also not encouraging over-purchasing of food. So much of changing waste is about tackling the whole supply chain and this often requires a range of different approaches."

Going forward, if the UK government wants to follow France's example, it might do well to look at Scotland's approach – as Zero Waste Scotland's chief executive Iain Gulland recently pointed out in a blog, similar legal obligations now exist north of the border; namely the Scottish Waste Regulations.

"Under our regulations, all businesses must apply the waste hierarchy, which prioritises reuse and recycling over disposal. So food businesses should be routinely redistributing their edible surplus for human consumption, where it is safe to do so, by law," wrote Gulland.

"Responding to calls for action on surplus food, the Scottish Retail Consortium highlighted that many of its members are voluntarily passing good food to charitable redistribution schemes.

"But under duty of care this isn't voluntary – it is a legal obligation." RWW

- Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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