Recently, the French National Assembly unanimously passed a law requiring supermarkets to donate unsold food to charity.
The law is certainly an improvement upon current practice, where edible food is destroyed — sometimes with bleach, according to one lawmaker — so that it cannot be consumed. I can only hope that this will serve as an example both for France’s counterparts in the United Kingdom, where as much as 40 percent of produce doesn’t even make its way to grocery shelves, because “shoppers are so unprepared to accept odd sizes, shapes or marks that farms use perfectly edible produce as animal feed or plough it back into the ground,” and for us here in the United States where we waste or throw away nearly half our food.
But is this a good thing?
Of course it’s a good thing.
Yes, adding an extra regulation on business should never be done carelessly, but it’s hard to argue with a law that will both encourage supermarkets to waste less food and provide charities with more resources.
Here’s how I anticipate those effects playing out.
Concerns about liability will lead supermarkets to minimize waste
The surprising thing is that France would need a law at all to convince its supermarkets not to destroy food that they can’t sell at full price, but that is still edible. best guess is that it has to do with liability concerns.
When it comes to getting sued by a discount customer or recipient of charity food who’s eaten food gone bad, supermarket owners aren’t just afraid of losing those lawsuits. The expensive legal defence and bad publicity could be more than enough to sink a store.
Even with that in mind, I would still guess that the risk-averse supermarket owners would not subject food they’re giving away to the same level of quality control that they impose upon food they’re selling. My guess would be that they’ll instead try to minimize the food they give away — to humans at least — by sending a large portion to be used as animal feed or by not ordering so much extra from their suppliers.
Supermarkets forced to compete with themselves will get innovative
in the current system, you’re limited to two choices of either buying an item at full price or not getting it. For some people, the new French law will add a third option — waiting until after that item is donated to charity and seeking to get it for free.
Supermarkets concerned with that might seek to minimize the drastic difference between buying an item at full price or waiting to get an item for free by enacting dynamic pricing that dulls this advantage. This could probably be better explained with an example — an example about bananas!
Suppose that in the current system, Market A sells a pound of bananas for 50 cents whether they’re green or yellow. Market A doesn’t sell brown bananas, instead destroying them once they get a few spots. With France’s new law, some shoppers would be able to get those brown bananas for free, making them less likely to buy yellow (soon-to-be brown) bananas. Markets who see their yellow bananas constantly piling up and turning into brown bananas they’re forced to donate might instead choose to sell the yellow bananas for 25 cents a pound.
This outcome would sadly mean fewer brown bananas would be sent to charity, but it also means more bananas would be eaten when they’re yellow.
I would suspect that the bigger effect — and perhaps the intent of French legislators — will be that supermarkets will work harder to reduce waste. I will be interested to see the results.
More than that, I’m happy that charities will find themselves being given more much needed resources.