A food sharing supporter brings provisions found during dumpster diving to a distribution point in Berlin in 2013. Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

They’re part of a larger German movement to reduce food waste, but inspectors recently found “unhygienic conditions.”

A network of German public refrigerators established to help individuals and institutions share rather than trash food leftovers has run into some trouble. Early last week, the BBC reports, Berlin city officials declared the fridges a health hazard, citing them for “unhygienic conditions, including non-packaged bread and torn packaging.” Organizers now fear that all 25 of the city’s fridges will have to close.

If the thought of taking food from a public fridge sounds creepy, bordering on dangerous, know that Berlin’s network is part of a 3-year-old project that boasts 110,000 users.

The online food-sharing system that eventually became Foodsharing.de began with dumpster diving; the process made Valentin Thurn positively irate. “The feeling I had, when I saw the great amount of edible food in the bins, was anger,” the German filmmaker and journalist told The New York Times. By 2010, Thurn had channeled his disbelief into a documentary film, Taste the Waste, which tackled Germany food-waste problem. The average German tosses more than 180 pounds of food per year, according to the government. (For comparison, the U.N. says the U.S. annually trashes the equivalent of 240 pounds per person.)

Thurn wondered: What if restaurants, institutions, and even private citizens told local strangers about their leftovers via the Internet?

A food-sharing fridge. (Foodsharing.de/Raphael Fellmer)

By 2012, the food-sharing website was up and running across Germany, and individuals, as well as at supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries, and food stalls, were going online to trade leftovers. They were also leaving food at approximately 100 food-sharing sites, made up of public refrigerators and shelves.The website’s organizers estimate they have helped save something close to 7.5 million pounds of food waste to date.

Thurn told NPR in 2014 that he worked with lawyers to ensure his food-sharing scheme didn’t violate German or European regulations. Part of sidestepping the authorities included staying away from products with “sell by” dates—meat, some dairy products—and instead focusing on those with “best before” labels. Thurn said he had received no complaints about sickness from users. Still, no food inspectors were involved in the network.

German food sharers posing in 2013 with the food they found while dumpster diving behind a Berlin dumpster. (Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch)

Now the German project is in public-health hot water. Organizers with Foodsharing.de insist they shouldn’t face the same regulations as other businesses—notably “commercial enterprises”—and have written up a petition to German officials that says as much. The petition had received more than 16,600 signatures as of Friday evening, closing in on its goal of 20,000.

“God, if only the authorities knew how the fridge in our flatshare looks!" a Facebook user wrote on the project’s page, the BBC reports.

"Shhh,” replied another. “Keep quiet—you'll give them ideas and they start inspecting it.”

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