Could your donated food get you sued?

Tamara E. Holmes

Whether you're feeding your secret-recipe soup to the homeless or baking cupcakes for your child's first-grade class, donating food is a great way to give back. But before you whip something up to give away, make sure you know whether you're covered if the food makes someone sick.

Home insurance policies do offer some protection from liability issues connected with food donation.

According to Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, most home insurers would cover some legal costs if a policyholder faced a lawsuit if someone was harmed by food that the policyholder cooked or donated. The coverage limits depend on your policy.

Before forking over any money, the home insurer likely would investigate the merits of the lawsuit to see whether anyone else could be at fault and, therefore, financially responsible. For example, a food manufacturer could be found liable for tainted peanut butter.

The problem with donated food

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC), 48 million Americans - one in six - become sick each year as a result of foodborne diseases. Food can become tainted when it's produced, transported or prepared. Not only can food be harmful to eat if it's not cooked properly, but an unsanitary cooking environment also can play a role.

Another risk associated with donated food involves food allergies. About15 million Americans have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, and the number is growing. A CDC study found an 18 percent increase in people diagnosed with food allergies between 1997 and 2007. When you cook food and give it away, there's always a chance that someone who consumes it will be allergic to at least one ingredient.

Legal protection

To remove some of the risk of donating food, there are some safeguards in place to protect consumers from legal and financial liability.

When you're giving food to food banks and other nonprofit organizations, you're protected from criminal and civil lawsuits by the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

The law encourages donation of food to nonprofit organizations such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens and churches for distribution to needy people, and protects the donors - individuals, companies and organizations from criminal or legal liability, according to Amanda Browne, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under the law, you're held harmless for illness or injury resulting from the food as long as serious carelessnessor intentional wrongdoing wasn't involved.

The federal law overrides any state "Good Samaritan" laws on food donation if the state laws provide less protection.

Samaritan safeguards

Typically, food banks and other nonprofits have adopted guidelines to ensure donated food is safe.

"We only take shelf-stable, non-perishable food items," says Shannon Traeger, a spokeswoman for Feeding America, a network of U.S. food banks.

The organization also doesn't accept items that can easily become spoiled - such as fresh produce or home-canned food, or food that's past its expiration date, Traeger says.

Typically, consumers who contribute to food banks also are protected from liability because it's hard to track individual donations, Traeger says. "If John Smith drops off a box of food," she says, "there's no way to track it back to John Smith once the food enters the food bank."

Liability at school

When it comes to schools, liability issues could crop up related to the preparation and dispensing of foods to students, such as birthday cupcakes. Since schools can be held liable, some school systems have banned homemade treats entirely, while others have required those who provide the food to assume the liability. For example, Minnesota State University requires fundraising organizations that are giving out food to sign a contract indicating they're liable for any food-related concerns.

Guidelines created by the National School Boards Association give local school boards direction on managing food allergies and food safety, according to association spokeswoman Linda Embrey. Among the association's recommendations:

  • For classroom activities and celebrations, allow only pre-packaged food that has a full list of ingredients.
  • Inform parents about any substances that can trigger food reactions.
  • Give parents and caregivers information about how to safely prepare and store food.

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