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.

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6 thoughts on “Food for Thought

  1. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. An adage that has been proven many times but with a message rarely heeded. As governments have grown in size and well meaning causes have multiplied so have good intentions exponentially been thrust upon us with or without our permission with the resulting increases in damaging and counterproductive unintended consequences. Our response has been not to curb this behaviour but to demand more of the same as a cure for our self imposed harm.

  2. Pingback: More Food for Thought | White Sun of the Desert

  3. “…and there are a lot of people out there who have made buying groceries from these sections an art form.”

    These section are why I despair of ever running down my freezer for a defrost before Christmas. It groans with meat and fish all picked up here and frozen.

    Just yesterday, I collected two chicken quarters (for coq au vin), four beefburgers, mince for chilli con carne & spag bol, six chicken breasts (to be left whole/sliced/diced) for chicken Provencal, fajita chicken and chicken stir fry, and some raw prawns (for paella).

    You have to know how to cook, of course. Though ASDA has a seperate section for ready meals.

  4. You’re right about the art form.

    I know a lady (middle-class, wealthy, horse-owning no less) who knows exactly when to go to ASDA and do her week’s shopping for about £1.50 (hardly an exaggeration, they mark loaves of bread down to 5p in the end). And she has very sharp elbows so the competitors don’t get much of a look-in.

    /anecdote

  5. At the moment most food which has reached end of shelf life date is still edible, and can still be termed food. If you force supermarkets to give away food that can be given away, then what you are in fact doing is forcing them to do is to act more cunningly.

    The responses I would expect are that the use-by date would be extended to much more narrowly hit the time at which the foodstuffs start to spoil, and I would also expect the supermarkets to shift unsold food back from stores to their distribution centres.

    Doing this means the supermarket doesn’t have the hassle of organising the shifting of food to a food bank operation from each retail store (which is likely to be another cost and hassle the staff don’t need), but instead the food bank then gets to pay for transport from a supermarket’s out-of-town distribution centre to where they want the food. More importantly, this also gives already dubious food more time to spoil AND adds a cost onto the food bank’s operational costs.

    I would finally expect all food banks to get hit with the cost of insuring themselves against damages from unluckily poisoned end users; I would expect the supermarkets to flat refuse to hand over anything unless a legal waiver of responsibility for this was signed by each food bank. This, too, would help the food banks into a richly deserved financial crisis.

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