Bulk selling: recommendations and products to be excluded

How can distributors guarantee the safety of products sold to consumers in bulk? Can all products be sold this way? With bulk selling becoming increasingly popular, driven by social demand as well as by the legislator through the French AGEC Act, ANSES has been asked by the Directorate General for fair Trading, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Control (DGCCRF) to give its opinion regarding products that may not be sold in this way for public health reasons. To continue to effectively protect consumer health, it is important for distributors to apply appropriate procedures to bulk selling.

What do we mean by bulk selling?

Some products have been sold in bulk – i.e. loose – for many years, including fresh fruit and vegetables or dry products such as cereals, pulses or dried fruit.

In France, the AGEC Act of 22 August 2021 on waste control and the circular economy, now defines bulk selling under the French Consumer Code as the sale to consumers of:

  • products without packaging;
  • in quantities selected by the consumer;
  • in reusable containers.

These bulk products are sold on a self-service or assisted service basis.

Recommendations for supporting distributors

Self-service bulk products display no information relating to shelf life (UBD or DMD) or instructions for use (storage conditions after purchase, preparation, cooking, or use). Nor do they provide the batch identification data that would facilitate possible recall procedures. The absence of this information can give rise to high-risk practices.

Although not a regulatory obligation, ANSES recommends that this information be provided to consumers at the time of purchase, seeing as it is the responsibility of distributors to ensure the safety of the products they sell. 

More generally, ANSES recommends that distributors implement hygiene practices tailored to bulk sales. This includes cleaning any equipment, including objects handled by customers, managing product storage conditions and using furnishings appropriate for bulk sales. For example, consumers with food allergies may be exposed to allergens through self-service bulk sales if the serving utensil has been used for another type of food, i.e. if the scoop provided for cashew nuts has been used for peanuts by another customer. These situations can be avoided through the use of appropriate distribution systems.

ANSES strongly encourages food distributors to draft a specific Guide to Good Hygiene Practices for this activity.

The key role of consumers in food safety

When purchasing pre-packaged or loose products, consumers must follow a number of rules to avoid poisoning during the preparation, cooking or storage of food. With bulk sales, consumers need to play a bigger role in food safety. For maximum safety, this type of consumption requires a period of acculturation.

More specifically, consumers must make sure that they provide a clean container in order to avoid the development of microorganisms. At the same time, the material of the container must be suitable for the product purchased (e.g. suitable for food contact). For some products, however, the hygiene and suitability of the container will not guarantee consumer safety at the time of purchase, even if a visual check is made. ANSES stresses the need to communicate more extensively – through distributors, consumer associations, schools, public authorities, media, etc. – in order to inform consumers and help them to adopt the right practices when buying in bulk.

A list of products to be excluded from bulk sales, changing over time 

The French Consumer Code states that: "any everyday consumer product can be sold in bulk, with specific exceptions that are duly justified for public health reasons". ANSES has analysed a draft list prepared by the DGCCRF for article L. 120-1 specifying the products to be excluded from bulk selling. It suggests adding other particularly sensitive products to the list, including a number of products containing dangerous chemical substances (detergents, laundry products) or hygiene products that cannot be washed before use (nappies, feminine hygiene products).

Some products could be sold in bulk providing that a salesperson is available to provide assistance or guidance (see box below). This is the case in particular for highly perishable foods such as products sold in refrigerated units (meat, fish, some dairy or delicatessen meat products, etc.) or some types of animal feed. These products can potentially contain pathogenic micro-organisms and/or their toxins, and could deteriorate over time, becoming harmful to health.

Finally, ANSES believes that a mechanism should be put in place to review the list of exceptions regularly, taking account of possible technological innovations or feedback from the implementation of bulk sales.

The difference between assisted selling and guided selling according to ANSES

  • Assisted selling is a sale where an employee at the retail outlet serves and packages the product.
  • Guided selling is a sale where the consumer serves and packages the product using an appropriate system, under the supervision of an employee at the retail outlet. The employee can advise the consumer (operation of the service system, product labelling, etc.).