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At the end of several affairs, we notice that there are some cakes and pastries untouched. The caterer says that by law of the health department, once a cake goes out of its box, even if it is untouched, it must be disposed.

Is it considered, then, a mitzvah to take these cakes as we know they will be disposed (avoid Bal Taschis)? Can we assume that once the cake is displayed, the owner assumes that it will be eaten, so he has relinquished "ownership" of the cake. The fact that it is untouched or even partially touched is incidental. Or do we need to assume that the owner may want all the left-over cakes, himself, in which case taking anything, would be considered stealing?

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At the catered affairs that I've helped to organize, the caterer always asked toward the end of the meal what we wanted to do with the leftovers, for what that's worth. (In other words, at least in my experience, there was never a presumption that the people who paid for the food had relinquished ownership.) –  Monica Cellio Jul 14 at 15:09
    
The best advice is when in doubt ask,if that's possible –  sam Jul 14 at 15:41
    
I didn't want to complicate the Q by asking in general if people can take displayed left-overs. I.e. - a cake is on display. The host assumes that it will be eaten, already. The fact that it's untouched is incidental. So, has the host already given up ownership by the mere fact that the cake is out there? Actually, I have edited this into the question. –  DanF Jul 14 at 15:52
    
Are you asking whether the ba'al Simcha has a right to take the food home, or whether a third party does? –  Chanoch Jul 14 at 21:50
    
See here for a bunch of ideas hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=873&pgnum=264 –  sam Jul 15 at 20:54

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The laws change by state and many caterers have (or had) deals with charities to pick up the leftovers. As such, you really need to ask. Personally, i have asked a caterer for leftover pineapple boats, which i was happily given. (Dried pineapple is delicious!)

To answer specifically: "Is it considered, then, a mitzvah to take these cakes as we know they will be disposed (avoid Bal Taschis)?"

No. As the caterer is not over Bal Taschis by throwing out leftovers according to the law, you are not required to take an action. Whether taking it is considered a meritorious act, i do not know.

"Can we assume that once the cake is displayed, the owner assumes that it will be eaten, so he has relinquished "ownership" of the cake."

No. Event owners or the caterers may have plans for leftovers. You must ask or wait for them to throw it out (or other reveal their intentions.)

"Or do we need to assume that the owner may want all the left-over cakes, himself, in which case taking anything, would be considered stealing?"

You do not need to assume that he wants it himself to be barred from taking it. Even if he wants to throw it out, you cannot stop him. (Though you can take it after he throws it out.)

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This answer would be improved if you could source the assertions therein (some of which are in dire need of sources, e.g.: "the caterer is not over Bal Taschis by throwing out leftovers" and "Even if he wants to throw it out, you cannot stop him"). –  Fred Jul 15 at 1:18
    
Proving a negative is difficult if not improssible. I do not see Bal Tashchis here at all. If a reason is presented why it should be Bal Tashchis, we will have what to discuss. As for not stopping a person from throwing out his own food, that is the definition of ownership. I do not think that requires a source, unless you are suggesting that we can stop people from doing what they want with their own items (in some cases). –  please delete me Jul 15 at 1:51

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