Food Waste Regulations in the US, UK and EU

Posted by Elena Sokolova / 25-Apr-2023

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When we talk about ways to curb food waste, we tend to look at how the virtuous behaviours of businesses and individuals can make a difference. 

What we often leave out, however, is the role of governments. The policies and regulations that lawmakers adopt (or fail to adopt) also play an important role in the fight against food waste. Three areas are particularly relevant: 

Date marking. The confusion between ‘use-by’ and ‘best before’ dates is known to cause a great amount of food waste. Lawmakers can help by limiting the application of ‘use-by’ dates to those foods where it’s strictly necessary and removing ‘best before’ dates altogether in foods with a very long shelf life. 

Donations. Donating surplus food is a great way – environmentally and ethically – to save it from the bin, but there are also risks involved which can discourage this practice. Lawmakers can incentivise food donations by:

  • Relieving food donors from any responsibility in case of food poisoning
  • Making it mandatory for retailers to donate edible food that they’re not able to sell
  • Offering tax and VAT incentives on food donations 
  • Clarifying the food safety requirements and hygiene practices

Landfill bans. Although landfill bans are not, strictly speaking, food waste prevention measures, they avoid further damage to the environment. When organic material ends up in a landfill with the rest of non-biodegradable waste, it will decompose in anaerobic conditions, releasing methane into the atmosphere.

In this blog, we'll give an overview of how these aspects are regulated in the US, the EU and the UK.

The US

At the federal level, the US offers comprehensive protection for food donors and non-profit organisations (through the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act) and tax incentives to food donors, while some states may offer stronger protection or tax incentives.

All other aspects are regulated by the individual states, sometimes with great differences. Most have rules in place for date labels. However, some of them prohibit the sale or donation of foods past the ‘best before’ date, while others make a clear distinction between quality and safety dates and explicitly allow the donation of foods past the quality date. 

The separate collection of organic waste is one aspect where the US is lagging behind. Only seven states and a handful of municipalities have adopted some requirements around food waste. The most virtuous example so far is California, where local administrations must set up a separate collection service for food waste, and food businesses are required to donate edible surplus food and recycle the rest.

The EU

Landfill bans. EU regulations require food waste generated at any stage of the food supply chain to be collected and treated separately. 

Date labels. ‘Use by’ dates must be used on foods that are highly perishable and can pose a risk to human health. However, the interpretation of the law can vary greatly from country to country. For example, while in Sweden and other northern countries pasteurized milk has a ‘best before’ date, in the rest of Europe the ‘use by’ date is applied. ‘Best before’ dates must be used on all other food products. However, certain categories (for example, vinegar and cooking salt) are explicitly exempt from any date marking. This list of exempt foods is likely to be expanded in the future. 

Food waste targets. For a long time now, the EU has adopted a 50% food waste reduction target at the consumer and retail level, which is in line with the UN’s SDG 12.3. However, the European Commission is planning to make this target legally binding in order to push Member States to adopt more aggressive policies. 

For the most part, the aspect of food donations is regulated at the country level. Here are a few examples.

In France, food donors can benefit from a tax break not only on the cost of donated food but also on the delivery and storage costs associated with the donation. 

Although the law offers no liability protection, food donors and charities must sign a partnership agreement that clearly defines the transfer of responsibility and take out an insurance policy that covers any damage caused as a consequence of the donation. 

In 2016, France adopted a law that requires retailers to donate unsold food that is still fit for consumption. The requirement was limited to the larger retailers at first and then gradually extended. The Czech Republic adopted a similar law.  

Germany offers tax and VAT incentives on food donations but no liability protection for food donors. 

At the beginning of 2023, Germany's minister of Food and Agriculture proposed to decriminalise the practice (known as ‘dumpster diving’) of collecting food from garbage bins outside of supermarkets, restaurants and other food businesses. As per German laws, food remains the property of the food establishment until it's picked up by the garbage collection service, even if it's in the bin. Although this rule is rarely enforced, whoever violates it (in most cases those are people in need) is liable for theft.

Italy has the most advanced liability protection law currently in Europe. Food banks are equated to final consumers and, therefore, relieved from any responsibility in case of food poisoning. In 2016, Italy adopted a food waste prevention law that clarifies what food can be donated and the hygiene requirements surrounding donations, and it simplifies the process.

In 2023, Spain's government adopted a law that requires all businesses in the food supply chain to prepare a waste prevention plan based on a food waste audit. Like in France, food businesses and food banks will have to form partnerships in order to define all the aspects of the donation, such as collection, transportation and storage. 

The UK 

Currently, there are no UK-wide regulations regarding food donations and landfill bans. The policy in each country is based on a mix of local, UK and EU-retained rules.

As far as tax incentives are concerned, according to a report published by the Global Food Donation Policy Atlas, “many businesses actively involved in food donation in the UK feel that the current tax policy does not present specific barriers unique to food donation but also does not offer any specific incentives to encourage it.”

As the report explains, although there is no liability protection for food donors and intermediaries, they are unlikely to be held responsible in case of food poisoning. 

Regarding date marking, the UK is still following the EU-retained rules. In the past few years, several supermarket chains have started to replace ‘use by’ with ‘best before’ on milk and other dairy products, encouraging consumers to use the ‘sniff test’ instead.

Though  food waste is increasingly present on the political agenda, we still have a long way to go. We're proud of the thousands of chefs we work with worldwide who work relentlessly to shine a light on food waste.  To learn more about how businesses reduce their food waste, read about how IKEA cut food waste in half.

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