Besmirching a Good Samaritan?

A recent L.A. Times piece on the legality of restaurant donations made me wonder a bit about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act–you know, that 1996 federal shield law that protects donors from liability when they donate food that they deem to be in good shape.

In the article, Shirley Wei Sher, a member of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association, wanted to avoid what happened in past years–dumping food that could feed 100 people being thrown out. Yet, Sher was surprised when a local mission said they couldn’t take the leftovers.

As any lawyer would, Sher investigated the Good Sam Law, and found that the local health code was the main barrier to donation. And rightly so, given the priority of keeping people healthy. So food must be kept at the right temperature and nothing self-served can be donated (for cross-contamination fears–in case the Sesame Noodles spoon doesn’t end up in the Kung Pao).

image courtesy of @EdSmith1989

But the article, and, possibly, many of its sources, seem a bit mistaken in their take. It’s not that the local rules supersede¬†federal law, but that the local health code conditions must be met in order for that federal liability protection to kick in.

Listen–I’m all for saving restaurant leftovers. And when we’re taking them for ourselves, there aren’t these limitations. But when giving food to others, precautions like local health regulations must be followed.

That doesn’t mean that the SCCLA can’t donate food.¬†In fact, here are two solutions that should appease Sher, the recipient agency and the hosting restaurant:

1. Have staff serve plated meals and allow guests to ask for more. Then the group can donate prepared but unserved leftovers.

2. Have staff serve people in a buffet line and donate the leftovers.


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  1. Jenny
    Posted March 25, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    So why is it that I as a paying customer can eat from a possibly contaminated buffet line, but that the same possibly contaminated food can’t be donated?

    It seems that it could be donated with a notice that says it was from a location that serves peanuts, wheat, dairy, etc, so it can’t be certified free from those, even if it seems to be a dish that shouldn’t have them in it. I assume this is the same answer I would get as an allergy afflicted customer inquiring about the buffet products, that I would need to assume that any ingredient in any of the dishes could be contaminating any of them.

  2. Posted March 28, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    You raise an interesting question, Jenny. I think the big difference is time. From what I understand, “cross-contamination” becomes more and more of a problem over time. When you eat that cross-contaminated food at that restaurant, there’s less of a chance that it will lead to a food-borne illness.

    I’m all for enabling more donation, but there are some food safety rules that need to be followed. Besides–there’s so much excess food out there, we are at the point where we are able to cherry pick (pun intended) the healthiest options.

    As far as allergies, my hat goes off to anyone dealing with that on a daily basis. Buffets would seem to have a higher threat of allergy contamination–just like with cross-contamination–than food prepared but not served. So it seems doubly worth steering clear of them if you’re a soup kitchen or other non-profit.

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