Why aren’t we encouraging food donations in Hong Kong when our landfills are full of edible waste?

Wendell Chan calls for the government to introduce a Good Samaritan law to encourage businesses to give, especially when poorer families often do not have enough affordable and nutritious food

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 1:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2016, 6:39pm

Earlier this year, France became the first country in the world to ban food waste from supermarkets. And, this month, Italy adopted a new law to prevent one million tonnes of food from being wasted every year by encouraging supermarkets and farmers to donate food. Although the two countries employed widely different approaches, both have the same goals – to help the needy and stop food waste.

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It makes sense. According to Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates, we produce more than enough food to feed 10 billion people, yet we have 800 million who are undernourished in a population of 7.4 billion. About 1.3 billion tonnes of food, equivalent to US$1 trillion, is wasted every year. Besides economic losses, that waste generates 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas yearly, making it the third-largest carbon emitter behind China and the US if it were a country.

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In Hong Kong, almost 40 per cent of our municipal solid waste is food. We estimate that businesses throw out HK$60 million worth of food yearly when almost half of low-income families lack reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Why is food going into our already strained landfills? Although the government has paid much lip service to food waste reduction through its Food Wise campaign, it has done little to support the food donation initiative.

Liability is commonly cited as the reason not to donate. Managers always like to tell of how some stores used to donate until they got sued. This is particularly true since strict liability is imposed on food products. In the US, however, there is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, signed in 1996 by then president Bill Clinton. The federal act protects businesses that donate food in good faith from lawsuits, except for cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct.

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Sadly, our government has said that it “has no plans to introduce a Good Samaritan Law”, citing the need for due care in food safety regardless of the legislation. However, such laws were never about protecting those who do not exercise due diligence. They are designed to remove the fear of prosecution if unintended consequences arise from their assistance. A University of Arkansas study in 2013 showed that there has not been a single food-donation-related lawsuit or a need to use the Good Samaritan Act in the US.

Donating surplus food is a low-hanging fruit to ease pressure on landfills. However, the government needs to take sincere steps to tackle the problem. One is legislating a Good Samaritan law on food donations as soon as possible to encourage more businesses to give to those in need.

Wendell Chan is project officer at Friends of the Earth (HK)