Plan to make stores give unsold food to charity

A collective of French lawmakers have proposed legislation that would force larger supermarkets to donate out of date food to charity rather than throw it away. The politicians behind it say waste is “the scourge of our consumer society.”

Plan to make stores give unsold food to charity
French lawmakers are trying to make it illegal for big supermarkets to throw away food. Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

A typical French supermarket throws away some 200 tonnes of food every year, but a new piece of legislation aims to make that sort of waste illegal.

Sixty-three elected officials from across party lines filed a bill on Wednesday that would force so-called “hypermarkets” of 1,000 square metres or more to donate out of date food to charity instead of tossing it.

“With logistical resources and a stockpile of products, supermarkets can more easily make donations than individuals,” signatory and National Assembly member Jean-Pierre Decool of the conservative UMP party told French daily Le Monde. “A more systematic, even mandatory, approach should be added to this process by changing the legislation currently in force.”

Though households are responsible for most of the food wasted in the European Union, accounting for some 42 percent of what is thrown away, five percent of the waste still happens at big supermarket stores.

'So much waste'

To highlight that waste a Frenchman ate his way across Europe this summer entirely on food he pulled out of dumpsters or was given by supermarkets. He was aware of the problem of waste before he left on the 3,000-mile trip to Warsaw from France, but the scale of it surprised even him.

"I really didn't imagine we were wasting as much as we are," he told the The Local previously. "Even when you know about it, it's still surprising to open a garbage can and find so many potatoes, so much fruit, yoghurt, sometimes 500-litre or 1000-litre bins are filled with things that are still good enough to eat."

Despite the scale of waste, this bill is already facing opposition. French retailers don’t like the idea of being forced to hand over their food, noting they already account for 30 percent, or 32,000 tonnes, of food donations in the country each year.

“Why add the obligation when supermarkets already give daily?” asked food trade group Fédération des Entreprise du Commerce et de la Distribution. “It’s absurd to donate everything that goes unsold. Lots of products like fish, shellfish, fresh pastries are subject to very specific health codes.”

Who's going to cover cost?

Food banks, which would be responsible for picking up, storing and handing out all the goods, are also a little wary of the idea.

“The questions about the logistics of picking up all these donations and carrying out the distribution and following hygiene rules still need to be resolved,” Maurice Lony director of French Food Banks told Le Monde. “Who is going to pay for all that?”

Decool, the lawmaker, hasn’t addressed these questions fully in the French press, but he believes the law gives exactly the type of push France needs right now.

“From time to time, you have to give a little push. They (supermarkets) don’t all (donate), probably out of routine and because this would add extra work,” McCool told French paper Journal du Dimanche. “This legislation will, however, have a cost.”

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!