A new law passed unanimously by the French Senate makes it illegal for supermarkets to throw away or destroy unsold food. Opponents of food waste say the US should follow suit, but it’s not that simple.

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Under the new law, French grocery stores and supermarkets will no longer be able to trash items approaching their best-before date. Instead of tossing these unused foods into back alley dumpsters, these shops will be expected to donate the items to charity. In turn, these charities will distribute these foods—amounting to millions of meals annually—to those who cannot afford to eat.

Any store larger than 4,305 square feet (400 square meters) is expected to sign donation contracts with charities. Failure to do so could result in fines reaching upwards of €75,000 ($83,500) or two years in jail. Stores are also prohibited from destroying food as a way to prevent so-called “dumpster divers” or “freegans” from foraging in garbage bins. As the Guardian reports, some stores were dousing tossed-out food in bleach—supposedly to prevent food poisoning—but more likely as a way to discourage urban foraging (which is gaining in popularity in France and elsewhere).

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The new law also makes it faster and easier for the food industry to give their excess products directly to food banks from factories.

The legislation was inspired by French anti-poverty campaigners and those opposed to food waste. They’re now hoping to take the idea to the UN in hopes of getting other European countries adopt similar laws.

Each year, the French throw out 7.1 million tons of food. From this total, 67 percent is tossed by the end consumer, 15 percent by restaurants, and 11 percent by grocery stores.

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In the United States, 40 percent of all food that’s produced goes uneaten. In 2010, supermarkets and grocery stores in the US tossed out 43 billion pounds, or $46.7 billion worth of food. Much of this food isn’t rotten or past its expiry date. According to the NRDC (pdf), if these losses could be reduced by just 15 percent, that would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans each year. NRDC figures suggest that one in seven Americans lack reliable access to food.

But as Edward Delman pointed out last year in The Atlantic, the situation in the United States isn’t the same as it is in France.

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Laws exist in the U.S. to encourage food donation, including the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Act, various tax deductions, and the US Federal Food Donation Act of 2008. But none of these laws compel stores in the way that the French legislation does. Charities and for-profit companies that collect and distribute food waste also exist in the US, such as AmpleHarvest and CropMobster. Collectively, these organizations provide food to 46.5 million people annually. As Delman points out, mandating food donations “could do more harm than good,” and he quotes a USDA official as saying

The logistics of getting safe, wholesome, edible food from anywhere to people that can use it is really difficult. If you’re having to set up a really expensive system to recover marginal amounts of food, that’s not good for anybody.

Given how many people go hungry in the United States each year, it’s clear something needs to change. Perhaps the US should look to France and take some inspiration in what its doing.

[Guardian]

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Image: Foerster (A box full of recovered fruits and veggies from a supermarket trash bin)

Email the author at george@gizmodo.com and follow him @dvorsky.