Should it Be Illegal to Throw Away Good Food? Newsworthy Investigates

A stock photo racoon searches for edible food thrown away by a supermarket.
A stock photo racoon searches for edible food thrown away by a supermarket.

Here are two facts that look terrible next each other.

1. Every day, thousands of New Zealand children go to school without lunch.2. Each year, our supermarkets still send tonnes of unsold, edible food to landfills.

France took steps to deal with its own version of that jarring juxtaposition in May. It introduced a law forcing supermarkets to donate their unsold food to charity or recycle it as animal feed. The bill passed unanimously.

Many New Zealanders reacted to the news by asking “Wait a second, you can do that?”, and another question: “Then why haven’t we done it already?’. At the time of writing, more than 14,000 people have signed this petition calling for our supermarkets to donate their unsold food to charity.

But are they fighting for a cause that's already won? I wrote to our two biggest food retailers asking what they do to stop food going to waste. Unsurprisingly, both said they’re already doing a good job.

Progressive Enterprises, which runs Countdown, said it has donated $3.4 million of unsold food to charities including The Salvation Army, FairFood, Food Share and Kaibosh in the last financial year. More than 150 Countdown stores partner with The Salvation Army. Others work with local food banks.

“The social benefit of giving food a second life really can’t be underestimated,” its statement said.

Foodstuffs, the company in charge of Pak’n’Save and New World, is in a more difficult position. Its stores are owner-operated, meaning it's tougher to impose a company-wide policy. Despite that, it says 80% of its edible, unsold food is recycled. “An efficiently run store shouldn’t have a great deal of food waste,” it said.

I put it to them that if they're doing so well, maybe they wouldn't mind a little French-style regulation formalising and, essentially, reinforcing existing practice. They weren’t enthusiastic. This is from Foodstuffs.

And this is from Progressive:

Few businesses like extra regulation. A spokeswoman for Food Safety minister Jo Goodhew also spoke warily about the prospect. Goodhew herself said she’s in favour of recycling unsold food, but not enacting legislation to enforce the practice. She pointed to the efforts Foodstuffs and Progressive are already making.

“In Wellington Kaibosh has rescued 385,817kg of food and FoodShare in Dunedin has rescued 208,128kg of food… While we don’t think food should be going to waste, we don’t think regulation is the right approach at this stage.”

Crucially, Kaibosh - New Zealand’s most well-established food rescue organisation - is backing the Minister. General Manager Matt Dagger says he supports the French legislation, but doesn’t believe something similar is needed here.

“We feel legislation is unnecessary when so much collaborative work is already being undertaken toward solutions that benefit both the community sector and the food sector,” he said.

The Green Party and Labour were also reluctant to call for legislation punishing supermarkets for throwing away edible food. However, Green waste spokeswoman Denise Roche pointed to a provision in the Waste Minimisation Act allowing products to be marked as a ‘priority’ for recycling. She said it hasn’t been used once since the bill was introduced in 2008.

Few things seem more stupid than throwing away good food when people are going hungry, and industry self-regulation has a sorry history in New Zealand. But in this case the collision of intense community activism and real economic benefits for doing the right thing seem to be ensuring that supermarkets at least try not to throw away good product.

So keep signing the petition. More still can and should be done. But don't expect us to be like France. By most accounts, we don't need to be.