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Harvesting for free distribution to the needy, or for donation to a nonprofit organization for ultimate distribution to the needy, an agricultural crop that has been donated by the owner.

Gleaning raises legal liability issues, especially with respect to the quality of the food donated and any harmful effects that may come from donated food. A group of statutes known as Good Samaritan laws are meant to encourage the donation of food and groceries to nonprofit charitable agencies by minimizing the number of legal actions against donors and distributors of foods.

Prior to 1990, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of statutory protection from liability for charitable food donation and distribution. These statutes were exceptions to the common law or statutory rule of strict liability for distributing food or any other defective product that causes injury. The statutes vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some provide liability only for gleaners' or donors' gross negligence or intentional acts, while others provide liability for mere negligence. Others limit liability if the donor reasonably inspects the donated food at the time the donor makes the donation and has no actual or constructive knowledge of any defective condition.

But the inconsistency of the existing state laws prompted gleaners and donors who volunteer time and resources to help feed hungry people to express concern that their charitable work put themselves at legal risk. In 1996 Congress passed federal legislation providing uniform protection to gleaners, citizens, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that act in good faith to donate, recover, and distribute excess food.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act (the Act), P.L. 104-210 (October 1, 1996), was named in honor of the late congressman who supported efforts to expand food donations to the poor and to protect those who make donations. It converted the Model Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to permanent law and incorporated it into section 22 of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 (P.L. 89-642, October 11, 1966). The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 was an anti-hunger initiative begun during the President lyndon b. johnson administration as part of its "War on Poverty" and has been amended numerous times.

Congress passed the act in late September 1996 and President bill clinton signed the bill into law on October 1, 1996. The act encourages citizens to donate food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and churches for distribution to needy individuals.

The act promotes food recovery by limiting donors' liability to cases of gross negligence or intentional misconduct. In the absence of gross negligence or intentional misconduct, donors, gleaners, and nonprofit organizations are not subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of food that is apparently wholesome. It also establishes basic nationwide uniform definitions pertaining to donation and distribution of nutritious foods and helps to assure that donated foods meet quality and labeling standards of federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

The 1996 law encourages and protects gleaning by excluding from civil or criminal liability a person or nonprofit food organization that, in good faith, donates or distributes donated foods for food relief. The law does not supersede state or local health regulations and its protections do not apply to an injury or death due to gross neglect or intentional misconduct.

As a federal law, the act takes precedence over individual states' Good Samaritan laws, but it may not entirely replace such statutes. The act creates a uniform minimum level of protection from liability for donors and gleaners. But state Good Samaritan laws may still provide protection for donors and gleaners above and beyond that guaranteed in the federal statute.

further readings

America's Second Harvest. Available online at <> (accessed July 26, 2003).

USDA Food Recovery and Gleaning Initiative. A Citizen's Guide to Food Recovery. Available online at <> (accessed June 27, 2003).


Good Samaritan Doctrine; Liability.

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