Donating Food to Charity? Chew On This Law

By Betty Wang, JD on June 09, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ever wonder what happens to all the leftover, untouched food at that huge event you were at? Wouldn't it be nice if the organization decided to donate the food to charity? It would be, except this is generally not done.

This is not because these organizations and caterers are cold-hearted and actually enjoy seeing others go hungry. It's likely because many charities are reluctant to accept leftover food donations, even with a federal law in place that's aimed at shielding them from liability.

Why is that?

Simply put: It's the fear of being served with a lawsuit.

By donating food to charity, the donor of the food would, in theory, be shielded from liability under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. It's named after the representative who proposed this law, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Under the act, food donors are protected from civil and criminal liability for "apparently wholesome food" that they donate in good faith; charities also get this protection for "apparently wholesome" food donations they receive and serve. Only those who engage in "gross negligence or intentional misconduct" can be held responsible.

So far, so good. So what seems to be the problem?

It's actually in that exact same law.

The federal statute states that no part of the law "shall be construed to supersede state or local health regulations." So charities are often concerned about violating local health codes, as a Los Angeles Times columnist recently noted.

Particularly when it comes to leftover food donations, a charity can't be certain that all legal health standards -- especially regarding food temperature, preparation, and handling -- were met before they were donated.

That's why charities may be open to accepting "apparently fit" canned and non-perishable food items (which are also covered under the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act), but not leftover or even untouched food from a catered event.

"Just because people are poor, they shouldn't be subjected to food that no one else would eat," a lawyer who specializes in food-safety issues told the Times.

So while it may seem like business owners and charities are being stingy, they may have legitimate legal reasons to pass on donated food.

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