Monday, 25 May 2015

Making Supermarkets Hand Over All Unsold Food Doesn't Seem Like The Answer To Me

It's Bank Holiday Monday, I was just about to cook some lunch before going out, and then right now this article just landed in my inbox - it's a campaign for David Cameron to make supermarkets hand over all unsold food to charities.

This is as a result of what's happening in France, where a group of French MPs have tabled a draft law to make it compulsory for supermarkets to hand over to charity all unsold food still fit for consumption.

It's a noble idea, surely? I mean, if there is one thing the State can be good for it is in gently nudging socially desirable preferences in the right direction, right? I can go along with that: I do actually want much more to be done for good causes, and a nudge that compels big supermarket corporations to do more for charities is no bad thing in principle, and full of good intentions.

However, in practice this is problematical, because when you legally compel businesses to behave a certain way over and above what they are in business for you then impose extra costs on them, such as extra labour and extra resources to collect, store and administer the goods - and those costs end up filtrating into other areas of society. Such enforcement will have spillover costs that are, at present, invisible to the government officials enforcing this.

Will the governments that enforce this law contribute towards all these extra costs, plus the additional costs of refrigeration for both the charities and the supermarkets? But perhaps even more disconcerting is the likelihood that with this potentially oppressive legislation the State then has the power to penalise shops who don't give their quota to charity, meaning threats of fines will affect supermarkets' buying habits (buying artificially low, keeping stocks at a minimum to avoid wastage, etc) which then has a knock on effect of lower prices, which hurts employees, manufactures, delivery drivers, and maybe even farmers too.

It may even be the case that in not enforcing a supermarket food-donation system that will only increase the supply of free food we avoid creating an unhelpful dependency food welfare, rather like how in not giving money to beggars we do more good for them in the long run.

All that said, it is easy to see why such a campaign is growing in popularity (over 100,000 signatures at the time of writing) - tonnes of perfectly edible food is literally being thrown out on a weekly basis across the country, and this needs to change. I once heard a manager of a supermarket say that the main reason they didn't give thrown out food to the homeless is that they were afraid of being sued in the event of someone getting ill. Would a government that passed this food-donation law allow an 'eat at your own risk' mandate to stand for those consuming the leftover food? I seriously doubt it. It's all very well politicians having these noble ideas, but so often they aren't thought through properly, and I suspect here is another fine example of that.

There definitely is a square hole problem of food shortage in this country, and a square peg solution of lots of thrown away food in supermarkets available to be consumed, but I'm not sure this proposed government law is the solution. What we need is more innovation in getting people to give generously, more awareness raised, and more government-led investment that can help the poorest and vulnerable in society get back on their feet and find work.