In America today, the road to abundance is paved with rotten fruit. At least it’s a laudable example of some of the more frivolous excesses of our trash-based lifestyle.
It won’t surprise anyone who’s ever set foot in a Ruby Tuesday “salad” buffet, but Americans waste an average of 30-40% of our food supply every year, or about 80 billion pounds. Forty-three percent of this waste comes from private households. At the same time, an estimated 35-50 million Americans, including at least 10 million children, are estimated to be food insecure because they lack a reliable source of food.
While you should start cooking that two-week-old asparagus on your bottom shelf right after finishing this column, the most tangible goal for makers comes in production and distribution. This represents the combined 57% of food waste in America that does not come from private households.
On my recent study abroad trip, I was walking through a French supermarket called Auchan Supermarché. I remembered once reading about laws in France prohibiting grocery stores from wasting food, which was comforting to know I was browsing the aisles. After further research, I discovered that while French food waste law is complicated, it is miles ahead of what we are in the United States.
The first big law in 2016 required supermarkets larger than 400 square meters (about 4,300 square feet) to establish a relationship with a charity to donate their unsold food. At the same time, they prohibited retailers from destroying food that was still “safe for consumption” and required that unsold food be treated according to a hierarchy. Thus, the store must first deliver the product and educate customers on how their purchases can help avoid waste.
After that, the food that remains unsold must be donated to charity, then used as animal feed, then composted or used for anaerobic digestion (biofuel production). If these options are exhausted and still impractical, only then is disposal in the trash allowed.
France completed these laws in 2019 and 2020. They required commercial catering companies producing more than 3,000 meals a day to comply with waste prevention regulations. They also demanded that caterers of this scale offer a doggy-bag option, encouraging customers to take all leftovers home. Some suppliers have been mandated to publicly display their waste reduction efforts.
Finally, the changes increased fines for destroying unsold food and required donated products to be shipped at least 48 hours before their best before date. Consumers’ misunderstanding of best before and best before dates is a massive contributor to food waste and explains why dairy is the most common food group ending up in US landfills.
French laws have not been a panacea for eliminating food waste. As critics note, they do not require a minimum proportion of excess food to be donated and do not dictate how often donations must be made. Additionally, food banks often do not have adequate storage or distribution infrastructure to handle a large influx, which means they also have to throw away food, especially perishables.
Nonetheless, laws have encouraged conservation among French grocers, as more than 90% of French supermarkets donated unsold food in 2018, compared to just 66% in 2016. rural grocers who may be further from host communities.
Overcoming Western stigma around food aesthetics requires innovative branding tactics. French grocer Intermarché has done so by planting an “inglorious fruit and vegetable” section in its stores. Since 2014, they’ve been buying the products producers shelve because they don’t meet industry beauty standards and reselling them to customers at a 30% discount.
Employing humour, they delved into the stigma and referred to the fruit as “the grotesque apple” or “the unfortunate clementine”. The campaign was a resounding success, increasing in-store traffic by 24% in one month.
The status quo is causing climate chaos as 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food waste. Thirty percent of the food in American grocery stores is thrown away and the restaurant industry loses $162 billion a year due to food waste.
The arguments for these changes make sense across the supply chain. France wastes 18% of its food, while we waste twice that. We should emulate culinary icons across the pond and implement similar legislation in the United States to reduce food waste.
Sam Berens is a senior graduate of the University of Florida, double majoring in political science and international studies with a minor in urban and regional planning.
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