Is taking food from a skip illegal?

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Paul May charged with stealing food from skip behind Iceland supermarket

The prosecution of three men for taking food from a bin behind an Iceland store has been dropped. They were caught taking £33 worth of tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and cakes from amidst the rubbish.

But what did they do wrong? And can this be right?

The Telegraph reported that the men were arrested around midnight on 25 October, after a neighbour reported them climbing over a wall behind the supermarket. They were found with the discarded food.

According to The Guardian, the three men were all from the same squat in North London, taking part in the increasingly common practice of 'skipping'. This is a movement which involves scouring supermarket bins for edible food that has been thrown away by the store.

Sky News have reported that the charges have been dropped after Iceland had questioned why the charges had been brought against the three men. The CPS stated a prosecution was "not required in the public interest".

Baljit Ubhey, chief crown prosecutor for CPS London, said: "This case has been reviewed by a senior lawyer and it has been decided that a prosecution is not required in the public interest.

"While the decision to charge was taken by the Metropolitan Police Service, a subsequent review of the case by the CPS did not give due weight to the public interest factors tending against prosecution.

"In reconsidering this case, we have had particular regard to the seriousness of the alleged offence and the level of harm done. Both of these factors weigh against a prosecution. Additionally, further representations received today from Iceland Foods have affected our assessment of the public interest in prosecuting.

"We hope this demonstrates our willingness to review decisions and take appropriate and swift action when necessary. The Crown Prosecution Service is committed to bringing the right charges to court when - and only when - it is proper to do so."

Unfair

Fans of skipping say that not only does it make it possible to eat well on a low income, but also that it saves waste - which is in everyone's interests. Given that Tesco recently said that it threw out 28,500 tonnes of food in 2013, there's clearly plenty of food that's going to waste - so why shouldn't people do what they can to cut down that level of waste?

Reaction to the story would seem to show the vast majority of people saw the prosecution as madness. George Monbiot said: "What possible public interest is there in prosecuting people for taking food out of a skip? CPS gone crazy." And Robert Peston said: "Why is it in public interest to prosecute those taking discarded food?"

Why?

From the supermarkets' point of view, they need to be careful because if they let people take the food they have thrown out they could be liable if someone became ill after eating discarded food.

Iceland has said in response to the story that: "We utilise secure storage areas and/or locked waste bins to dispose of such products because allowing them to be consumed by members of the public would constitute a significant health and safety risk."

And technically taking the food from bins is illegal. It's against the law to take anything that belongs to someone else: just because they have thrown it away, it doesn't mean they don't own it any more.

In this instance the store didn't know about the prosecution. Iceland said in a statement: "The store is next to a police station. Iceland staff did not call the police, who attended on their own initiative. Nor did we instigate the resulting prosecution, of which we had no knowledge until the media reported." It added: "We are currently trying to find out from the Crown Prosecution Service why they believe that it is in the public interest."

These men are not the skippers to first to fall foul of the law. In 2011 a woman who lived in a flat above a Tesco Express store in Essex was charged with handling stolen goods, after she was found with items in her fridge that had been taken from a bin outside the store. There had been a power cut at the shop, and the store had been forced to throw out £10,000 worth of food. The woman said a crowd had taken food, and that a friend had handed her two bags, which she had put in the fridge. She admitted the crime.

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