The House passed by voice vote Wednesday a bill that would improve liability protections for farmers, processors, supermarkets and other businesses that donate food. 

The bill, which is designed to reduce food waste, would extend liability protections to donors when food is given directly to a person in need rather than a nonprofit intermediary, or when food is given at a deeply reduced cost.

“If you go behind almost any restaurant, grocery store, or catering company, or even some farms in America, you’ll find a dirty little secret that is as offensive as it is solvable: food waste,” said a House sponsor of the measure, Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. 

He said the measure was supposed to have been included in the year-end omnibus funding bill that congressional leaders reached agreement on this week. 

Under the bill, which passed the Senate on Tuesday, "a qualified direct donor shall not be subject to civil or criminal liability arising from the nature, age, packaging, or condition of apparently wholesome food or an apparently fit grocery product that the qualified direct donor donates in good faith to a needy individual at zero cost."

When the version of the legislation was originally introduced in the House, Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said it would "enact logical reforms that will provide clarity and protections to farmers, retailers and non-profits seeking in good faith to assist the hungry, helping those in need have access to food that would otherwise go to waste.”

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In 1996, Congress passed the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act to encourage the donation of food to nonprofit organizations to be redistributed to those facing food insecurity. The intent was to protect companies from civil and criminal liability if someone became ill from the donated food.

Common Ground Food Cooperative said many companies do not feel the Emerson Act offered sufficient protection, dissuading them from donating food to charitable organizations. Smaller organizations, such as schools or restaurants who have minimal amounts of food to donate at the end of the day, but nowhere to take it, often end up discarding the food.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said the Emerson Act only covers donations to nonprofits who must adhere to safety standards comparable to food banks and pantries, and in order to have liability protection

NRDC said the pandemic showed that local retailers, restaurant owners, and farmers are often able to quickly meet the needs of community members in need, when food pantries sometimes cannot. “Protecting direct donations by businesses and food service institutions (or by farmers, who donate low-risk products such as produce) that adhere to these standards can allow individuals to access food more easily,” NRDC said..

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