More Food for Thought

A friend has pointed out that in yesterday’s post about supermarkets and expired food I overlooked the practice of their deliberately destroying the food that goes into their bins.  The complaint of many seems to be that supermarkets do this simply because they don’t want poor people hanging around their bins.  Taking this at face value, it would sound pretty callous that supermarkets are denying hungry folk food simply because – for whatever reason, but probably because they are just bastards – they don’t want poor folk nearby.  Or maybe they don’t want poor folk feeding themselves for free when they can be forced into paying for it?

But there are valid reasons why supermarkets wouldn’t want this, aside from their just being bastards for fun.  Having anyone regularly rummaging through your bins is probably going to come with additional problems, such as people camping semi-permanently beside them waiting for food to be dumped and being a nuisance for staff and the public.  Private householders wouldn’t want people in their back yard rummaging through their bins, so I don’t see why supermarkets would be happy about it.

But in reality it feeds in (sorry!) to the main point I made yesterday regarding liability.  A company is still responsible for its waste products up until custody changes hands in the collection process.  A supermarket has a duty of care towards the public which includes doing everything reasonably practicable to ensure they are not harmed by its operations and products, which includes the waste food as it lies outside discarded in the bins.  This will also include ensuring nobody will come to any harm if they decide to climb into the bin to eat something: if somebody does so and injures themselves somehow, the supermarket is liable.  Stupid, but this is how the law works.  The supermarkets are also liable should somebody fall ill by consuming waste food which by the supermarket’s own definition is unfit for consumption.  The supermarkets are especially liable because they know in advance that people will try to gather and consume this stuff, so they cannot claim ignorance for not doing more to prevent it.

And this is the issue: the supermarkets are legally obliged to prevent people from eating out of their dumpsters.  If they just leave them open and unguarded, they are being criminally negligent in their duty of care towards the public.  And this is what the campaigners don’t get: those among their numbers have imposed these rules and regulations and set these legal precedents and this is the result.

Supermarkets have two realistic options here: secure the bins in such a way that nobody can get at them, or destroy the food so thoroughly that nobody will try.  This new law will be discarded as soon as a liability case arises, it is pointless posturing by the wealthy middle-classes.  If the welfare programmes that exist to ensure nobody goes hungry are failing, they need to be fixed: but that would likely involve shaking up bureaucracies and firing useless managers, and that would never do.  So instead they take a cheap swipe at the supermarkets for dealing with a set of conditions that they themselves created.

Food for Thought

Earlier this year France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food.

France has become the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks.

Charities will be able to give out millions more free meals each year to people struggling to afford to eat.

I’m not sure when the ban actually comes into effect, but there has been a recent spate of articles doing the rounds on social media about how wonderful this is and how the US should adopt the same laws.

The narrative is that supermarkets are callously destroying food while the starving, huddled masses are gathered outside their automatic doors pleading for some sweepings from the delicatessen floor.  Why not just give this food away?

I can already think of two reasons why not, with the first being that of liability.  I haven’t visited every supermarket in France, but I know British supermarkets pretty well and if you go to one in the late evening just before closing you see a section filled with produce expiring that day which has been marked down, and further marked down, and then reduced to almost nothing in a desperate attempt to get rid of it before it goes in the skip out the back.  As far as I know this is common practice among supermarkets everywhere, and there are a lot of people out there who have made buying groceries from these sections an art form.  In other words, supermarkets already go to considerable lengths to avoid destroying food.

There is a good reason why expiry dates are put on food, and it’s mostly to do with liability and ensuring the customer is adequately informed.  Present in the contract a customer enters into with the supermarket when he or she buys a product is the expectation that the food is fit for consumption; the onus is therefore on the supermarket to adequately inform the customer when he or she should consume it before it goes bad.  The dates on the products might be a bit conservative and sometimes even silly, but they exist in order to ensure the customer is informed and the supermarket has carried out its duty of care to the best of its ability.  If they fail in this duty of care and a customer gets ill, they can and will be sued for compensation and suffer a loss of reputation.  This is why supermarkets will not take the risk of selling food past its expiry date: customers could get ill, and both parties will suffer.  All of this is entirely sensible across a colossal, multi-billion dollar, international logistics operation – and it remains sensible even if somebody can pick up a can of beans a day past its expiry date and say “Oh, this is stupid, they are still perfectly edible.”

So what’s the supermarket to do with those few items they can’t sell before their expiry date (and as a percentage of overall stock the volumes will be tiny, even if the poverty campaigners will cite numbers which sound large in isolation)?  The most sensible and cost effective thing to do from a business and liability point of view is to toss it into a skip and replenish the shelves with fresh stuff for the hungry customers who come in the next morning, and indeed that is what they do.

But now they are being forced to give away food which they have deemed unsuitable for sale to their customers, several problems will arise.  The first of these is actually mentioned in the article, but being The Guardian they’re too dense to follow through:

The law has been welcomed by food banks, which will now begin the task of finding the extra volunteers, lorries, warehouse and fridge space to deal with an increase in donations from shops and food companies.

Lorries, warehousing, refrigeration, and distribution all cost money.  And by far the best people at doing these operations are supermarkets, as evidenced by their commercial success.  So if the supermarkets, with all their expertise, have decided these operations aren’t worth doing for certain items, maybe they are onto something?

But now the supermarkets have handed over the food, who is going to pay for these operations?  Where is the money for the refrigeration going to come from?  And more importantly, who is responsible for ensuring these products are handled and stored properly such that they are still fit for consumption when handed to the recipient, and that the recipient is correctly informed as to when he or she should consume it?  The expiry date on the package has already gone by, remember?  That was yesterday.  Are a team of volunteers and charities seriously going to be able to manage the receipt, storage, and distribution of thousands of tonnes of food at or near its expiry date such that nobody is going to get sick?  Are these charities and volunteers going to accept responsibility if somebody gets food poisoning and dies?  If not they, then who?

What’s happened here is some (undoubtedly wealthy middle-class) busybodies have decided they can effectively extend a supermarket’s operations beyond their doors at no cost and with no accountability, and now this has become law.  I suspect the liability issue alone will prevent this being adopted in the US, there would be lawsuits within the first month.  Only against Wal-Mart, probably.

There’s also another problem with forcing supermarkets to give away products, one that we’ve seen with food banks in the UK: some people will take the free stuff instead of doing regular grocery shopping.  Supposing a supermarket sectioned off a corner of its floorspace, filled it with free products, and opened it up to the public for an hour after normal shopping hours.  Now repeat across the country.  Very quickly this would be captured by organised third parties who would employ people (of the type you see on nightclub doors in Manchester) to swoop in and collect everything on offer in what would become a large-scale industrial operation: just as charity clothing has become a lucrative, large-scale, international business.  The idea that a little old lady whose pension won’t stretch to three meals per day would be able to get free food is ludicrous.

If people are substituting products they would have paid for with free stuff, the supermarkets (or the wholesalers) will be losing revenue.  Yes, it is true: if supermarkets are forced to give away products they would otherwise have destroyed, they will lose revenue because of the substitution effects.  This will either result in a fall in profits for the supermarkets – which is what the campaigners think will happen – or, more likely, they’ll just distribute the costs of the new law among the sale prices.  In other words, food will get more expensive.  How does that help the poor, again?

Practicalities aside, this whole thing is annoying me on another level.  For the first time in human history we as a species are able to produce and distribute enough food so that real hunger in properly-run countries is something only our grandparents knew about.  We do this so effectively we can feed ourselves and our families without any more inconvenience than a quick trip to a nearby supermarket.  Furthermore, we can obtain our food without worrying if it’s going to kill us if we eat it.  This in itself is one of the most astonishingly, staggeringly, brilliant outcome that humankind has managed in its existence.  We have solved the millenia-old problem of constant hunger.  So what do we do?  We moan like fuck and attempt to sanction those who have brought it about.  Like the attempts to dismantle our reliable energy supply and replace it with one that doesn’t work, historians are going to look back on this era and think we went collectively insane.

People do go hungry in the developed world, I don’t deny that.  This is why we have a welfare system, food stamps, charities, and a whole load of other measures in place to do what we can to alleviate poverty and hunger.  Supermarkets and their stock-management practices are not the problem, by contrast they are the very things that are keeping the majority of us fed so that we have enough surplus wealth and energy to help those who are not.

Finally:

Campaigners now hope to persuade the EU to adopt similar legislation across member states.

And people are wondering why Britain voted to leave.

Commandos Tour de France

It’s not something I talk about much on this blog, but I’ve always been a steady supporter of the UK armed forces, especially the Royal Marines whose ranks hold several of my closest friends.  Regardless of the politics surrounding their deployment, I always thought the armed forces were worthy of support given the job they are asked to do and – perhaps more importantly – the job they might one day be asked to do in order to save the lives of my family and me.

War is hell, and the testimonies of my friends coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan don’t deviate much from this axiom, and it is with great admiration that I look upon those who have experienced it and – contrary to what (rightly) gets the most attention in the press – return to simply get on with the rest of their lives.  Of course, getting on with the rest of your life is a lot easier if you have not suffered a battlefield injury, and for those that have – and there are sadly plenty of these occurring in Afghanistan and Iraq – they need all the support they can get.  Knowing these chaps, they don’t want sympathy, they have more than enough mental strength to overcome the physical handicaps, what they need is good hard cash to pay for operations, prosthetics, and any specialist rehabilitation training and care they might need.

To this end, a group of Royal Marines is intending to undertake a 2,218 mile cycle ride following the exact route of the 2007 Tour de France in order to raise money for injured Royal Marines on what is billed as The Commandos Tour de France.  Their website is here, and their Facebook page is here.

If you’ve got a few spare quid, please consider donating.  It’s a worthy cause.