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First big steps taken to tackle retail food waste in Europe

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According to the European Commission around 100 million tonnes of food is wasted in Europe every year, which as it stands could rise to 120 million tonnes by 2020. 

In industrialised countries, over 40% of food losses occur at the retail and consumer level.

The high levels of food waste occurring at the retail stage could be due to stock management issues, previously discussed cosmetic standards of food, (especially when dealing with fruit and produce) overproduction due to changes in demand and inadequate storage coupled with strict disposal regulations linked to use by and sell by dates. However, steps in the right direction are being made.

France has become the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from throwing away good quality food approaching its sell by date. As of Wednesday 4th February 2016, large supermarkets in France such as Carrefour and Auchan are now forced to give excess food to charities or food banks, providing in turn millions of free meals to those in need.

The new law states that supermarkets with a footprint of 4,305 sq ft or more will have to sign donation contracts with charities or face penalties, including fines of up to €75,000 or two years’ imprisonment.

Like any plan, it has its critics. The Fédération du Commerce et de la Distribution, which represents big supermarkets, disagrees with large supermarkets getting so much of the blame given that the big stores represent only 5% of food waste. However, the measures are part of wider drive to halve the amount of food waste in France by 2025. According to official estimates, the average French person throws out 20kg-30kg of food a year – 7kg of which is still in its wrapping. The combined national cost of this is up to €20bn.

Despite many consumers unnecessarily throwing away food, many are still in need of this surplus. For years the number of families, students, unemployed and homeless people foraging in supermarket bins at night, in order to feed themselves, has been on the increase. The challenge is that the food found in these bins is perfectly edible; the majority of food thrown out is simply because of its approaching best-before-date.

Denmark is trying to eliminate the need to reach these extremes by having opened possibly the first food-waste supermarket in the world which only sells food that cannot be sold in a conventional supermarket but is perfectly suitable for consumption. The new store WeFood, driven by local NGO Folkekirkens Nodhjaelp (DanChurch Aid), and supported by volunteers, is aiming to reduce the annual 700,00 tonnes of food waste in Denmark. What’s more, revenue from the supermarket will go directly to NGO projects in the world’s poorest countries.

Italy has also recently stepped up to the mark becoming the second country in Europe to pass laws to help fight food waste. Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, Maurizio Martina states that Italy “currently recovers 550 million tonnes of excess food each year, but is aiming to arrive at one billion in 2016”. The laws should help the country to avoid the €12 billion that disposed unsold food costs the economy. The Italian strategy is quite different to that of the French however, as they have decided to take the rewarding and donations approach rather than penalties and punishment.

Initiatives and changing mentalities are likely to continue to spread across Europe and even further afield, which will begin to address the food waste issues within the retail sector. The retail sector however, is only a small part of the problem; the largest proportion of food waste comes from consumers.

Consumers need to understand the large scale of the issue and commit to cooperation. It’s all well and good saving food items from retail waste bins but for them to only then be thrown out when they reach the consumers home makes the whole thing seem a bit meaningless. Consumers need to change their habits alongside retailers in order for these plans to become an effective way of tackling the food waste dilemma. 

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