Last week, France introduced legislation that requires French supermarkets to donate unwanted food to charity. Edible food must never be thrown away. All stores over 4,000 sq ft must link up with a charity by July 2016. Failure to comply will result in a fine of £53,000, or two years imprisonment. 

The decisive ruling shows how fed up France is with what its MPs described as the “scandalous” practice of throwing away food when people are starving. It’s a situation equally apparent in the UK, where the number of people using foodbanks (and the number of foodbanks themselves) is rising.

Yet France redistributes 20 times more food. And French supermarkets aren’t impressed at being strong-armed.

“The law is wrong in both target and intent, given the big stores represent only 5% of food waste but have these new obligations,” said Jacques Creyssel, president of the FCD (which represents French supermarkets). “They are already the pre-eminent food donors, with more than 4,500 stores having signed agreements with aid groups.”

But with the UK lagging far behind - a situation described by Fareshare CEO Lindsay Boswell as “pitiful” - it begs the question: how can Britain improve its food restribution efforts? Would legislation help? And what appetite is there for it?

Certainly those involved in food redistribution could use more food. FareShare redistributed 7,360 tonnes of food in 2014, its biggest-ever year, up 33% on 2013. It says the increase was the result of “strengthening partnerships with key retailers, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.”

It follows that should those partnerships be strengthened further, FareShare would have more food to distribute.

”There are systemic problems in the UK. It’s absolutely not working”

Boswell would prefer that supermarkets work with them voluntarily. “Partly because the appetite for interventionist regulation by British parliamentarians is considerably less in the UK than in France, so I’m being pragmatic. And I also have some question marks about how the French scheme is going to work, given we are talking about food that is fit for human consumption one day but not the next.”

Company and Community Shop MD Mark Game believes it would be “a disservice” to call for “state intervention” at this point and believes a “positive collaboration culture is flourishing.

“Of course we can always encourage industry to do more, but we are increasingly seeing retailers, manufacturers, brands and redistributors innovating to adopt models that deliver positive social and environmental impact from surplus food,” he says.

“Insisting supermarkets divert all their surplus hits the broader target but misses the point. We all want to ensure food reaches people’s plates, but to achieve that we need to look further up the supply chain and build sustainable agreements that allow redistributors and charities to access surplus food earlier in the process. And give retailers and brands incentives to divert the product.”

Positive collaboration

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the BRC, says “long-term collaboration between retailers, suppliers and government means direct government intervention is unnecessary in the UK. Where supermarkets do have usable excess stock they ensure as much as possible goes to the people most in need of it. All of this positive collaboration takes place on a purely voluntary basis.”

As for the retailers themselves, asked this week for their thoughts on the prospect of their voluntary arrangements becoming formalised à la française, Tesco and Morrisons failed to respond. Asda and Sainsbury’s each highlighted the work they do with redistribution charities, but declined to comment on the specific French legislation.

The good news for them is that the government doesn’t seem that keen on the prospect either. A Defra spokeswoman says it works “closely with industry to help them forge closer links with redistribution charities across the whole supply chain. Leading UK retailers and manufacturers - representing over 90% of the grocery market by sales - have signed up to our voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which has prevented 2.9 million tonnes of waste and contributed to a 15% reduction in total household food waste since 2007.”


However, the industry cannot be complacent. Results put out in January by Courtauld showed waste from manufacturers and retailers had actually increased (by 0.1%) to 2.76 million tonnes, against a target of a 3% reduction by the end of 2015.

And for all the encouraging noises made by FareShare et al, Boswell is far from satisfied with the status quo.

“The situation is improving, but it’s a slow handclap when you take a bird’s eye view of it,” he says. “The food industry just doesn’t get ‘it’ enough, which means it isn’t their default behaviour.”

But the system also lacks the necessary funding. “If there was financial support to cover the added cost of transport to get food into organisations like FareShare that would be transformational.”

And Boswell also calls for modest investment in charity food redistribution.

“And those last two things need to be a collaborative approach between the industry and government.”

Collaboration will sound more palatable to the UK food and drink industry than being served up the diktat that Carrefour, Casino, Auchan and more have been forced to swallow, but Boswell suggests it should prepare for change.

“Something dramatic needs to happen because only 2% of food fit for human consumption is being diverted away from waste and into the food chain in the UK, which, compared to France, is pitiful,” he says. “There are systemic problems in the UK. It’s absolutely not working.”