In the EU, approximately 88 million metric tons of food is wasted annually, almost 173 kg per person.


To tackle the issue the European Commission has recently adopted new guidelines1 for food donations in order to facilitate the redistribution of edible and safe food for those in need.

These new guidelines, EU guidelines on food donation (2017/C 361/01), are part of a wider EU-level policy to tackle food waste. But how big an issue is food waste globally and specifically in Europe?

Global food wastage

Globally, approximately one third of food produced is wasted or lost, amounting to 1.3 billion metric tons per year. At the same time in excess of 1 billion people go hungry. In addition, food waste represents a waste of labor, energy, land and other inputs used to produce food.In industrialized countries, food waste is as high as in developing countries, however it occurs at different stages of the food chain. In developing countries, more than 40% of food losses happen at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries over 40% occurs at the retail and consumer level of the food chain.3

In an effort to identify ways to combat food loss and waste, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched a global initiative – Save Food – in 2011, with four pillars:

  • Awareness raising
  • Collaboration
  • Policy, strategy and program development
  • Support to investment programs and projects

Drawing on expertise from around the world, Save Food involves representatives from donors, bi- and multi-lateral agencies, financial institutions and private sector partners (the food packaging industry and others) to develop and implement a program on food loss and waste reduction.

Major causes of food wastage in the EU

In the EU, more than half (53%) of food waste occurs at household level, which, together with waste at the retail and food services level, represent the major causes of food waste in the region (70%).

Split of EU 28 Food Waste in 2012 by Sector

The associated costs have been estimated at a staggering 143 billion euros, of which 98 billion are attributed to household level waste.4 Specific factors that contribute to food waste in the EU include:

  • Overproduction
  • Lack of demand for certain products during certain seasons
  • Product and marketing standards
  • High quality standards for retail sales
  • Difficulty in anticipating customer numbers in catering services
  • Insufficient shopping and meal planning at household level
  • Large portion sizes in restaurants
  • Retail practices and promotions such as ‘buy X get Y free’
  • Misunderstanding of ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates which leads to edible food being thrown away
  • Inadequate storage and transport conditions in the food supply chain
  • Mismanagement of stock by manufacturers and retailers

Almost all of these factors are preventable. 

Sustainable Development Goals

To tackle food waste, the EU and its Member States have committed to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)5, specifically Goal 12.3 to halve the amount of food waste at the retail and household level by 2030. The EU Circular Economy Package6 and its Annex7 outline actions and timetables, including a revised directive proposal8, in order to achieve the SDG targets on food waste. In addition, an EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste9 has been set up to support EU-wide actions and involved all societal stakeholders. Key among these actions are those targeted at date marking and food donations, which respectively lie at the ‘prevention’ and ‘cure’ stages of the problem.

Date marking

As far as date marking is concerned, a better understanding of date marking on labels can prevent and reduce food waste in the EU, especially since it has been estimated that 15-33% of food waste can be linked to date marking due, amongst others, to misunderstanding of how these dates should be interpreted.10 Practices from food business operators and varying national rules in EU Member States, such as using the term ‘sell by’ or stringent shelf life requirements, can have additional impacts on food waste generation.

Possible EU level actions would be to extend the list of non-perishable foods in Reg. (EU) 1169/201111 that are exempted from the obligation to have a ‘best before’ date on food labeling (date of minimum durability). To date only vinegars, sugar and salt are exempted. Another action would be to modify the terminology ‘best before’ to something that is better understood by consumers. Any such actions on date marking should not only contribute to food waste reduction and meeting consumer needs, but should continue to ensure food safety.

A market study on date marking and its use by food business operators and control authorities has already been launched12 by the European Commission and the results are expected towards the end of 2017.

Food redistribution

Another key EU action is to facilitate the redistribution of surplus foods and fight food poverty, where safe to do so, for example by facilitating the compliance of providers and recipients of surplus food with specific requirements (e.g. safety, hygiene, traceability, VAT etc.) and harmonizing the interpretation of EU rules across national Member State regulatory authorities.13

The recent EU guidelines1 on food donations take an important step towards this. The guidelines define the concepts of food redistribution, surplus food and specify the actors involved, as well as the roles and obligations of such actors, including charity organizations. Furthermore, they include guidance on the sorting of surplus foods, traceability, legal aspects, and cover hygiene regulations and general hygiene requirements for all food donation activities, including specific hygiene requirements for foods of animal origin and surplus food from hospitality, catering and food service sectors.

Finally, they provide guidance on the freezing of surplus foods, food information for consumers as well as date marking, and fiscal rules, VAT and fiscal incentives to promote food donations.

A pilot project to be launched within 2017 will further assess food donation practices in the EU and promote dissemination and uptake of the above-mentioned Food Donation guidelines.13

If you want to keep up to date with policies and regulatory developments, visit SGS Digicomply – the regulatory intelligence network.

For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety.

For further information, please contact:

Nicola Colombo
Global Head of SGS Digicomply
t: + 41 754 022 274


1 European Commission Notice – EU guidelines on food donation 201. Official Journal /C 361/1
2 FAO Food Loss and Food Waste Website
3 European Commission Stop Food Waste Webpage 
4 Estimates of European Food Waste Levels (2016) FUSIONS EU Project
5 United Nations website on Sustainable Development Goals
6 Closing the loop – An EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy. COM (2015)14 Final
7 Annex to ‘Closing the Loop – An EU Action Plan for the Circular Economy’ 
8 Proposal Amending Directive 2008/98/EC. COM(2015) 595 Final
9 EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste Website
10 European Commission Date Marking and Food Waste Website
11 Regulation (EU) 1169/2011 on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers L304/18
12 Terms of Reference: Market Study on Date Marking
13 European Commission website on Food Donation