Fury as government rejects calls for new laws on hospital food

Campaigners hit out after Whitehall chiefs claim mandatory legislation could place an 'unacceptable burden' on the NHS and prevent the future flexibility required for food standards

Campaigners are calling for new legislation to ensure improvements to hospital food

The Government has announced an action plan aimed at improving hospital food, but has rejected calls to introduce new legislation forcing providers to conform to higher standards.

The announcement comes after Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, launched its Campaign for Better Hospital Food , which calls on Whitehall chiefs to introduce mandatory nutritional, environmental and ethical standards for food served to patients in NHS hospitals in England.

The Department of Health must recognise its responsibility to hospital patients and apply legally-binding standards for hospital food

Responding to the challenge, the Government has said that while it 'fully reocngises the importance of providing sustainable, high-quality, nutritious food across every area of the public sector', it 'does not agree with Sustain’s view that legislation is necessary for improvement'.

Instead each government department involved in procuring food will develop a course of action tailored to suit their part of the public sector, which aims to provide the best value for the taxpayer and the best outcome for their relevant consumers. The approach each department takes will vary but, where appropriate, the departments will work together to provide solutions.

Defra’s British Food Plan , which is led by Dr Peter Bonfield, will involve developing the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services to support a healthier future for people, farmers and food processors by simplifying public procurement processes and purchasing criteria and making them more consistent. The Department of Health and the Department for Education are closely engaged with this work.

The Department of Health has also set up a Hospital Food Standards Panel (HFSP), chaired by Dianne Jeffrey, the national chairman of Age UK. It will report directly to Dr Dan Poulter, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health. The panel will advise on standards covering the nutritional content of patient meals, healthy eating for staff and visitors, and sustainability, including local and sustainable procurement, food waste and animal welfare.

Once the HFSP has made its recommendations, the Department of Health will work with NHS England to ensure these are appropriately highlighted in the NHS Standard Contract, which is used by NHS commissioners to contract with hospitals and other providers. If hospitals fail to meet the terms of the contract, commissioners can require remedial action to be taken. This means that any food standard in the NHS Standard Contract will be legally binding.

We believe it is more appropriate to develop change this way than by introducing legislation, which could place an unacceptable burden on the NHS and prevent the future flexibility required for food standards

In a statement, the Department of Health, says: "We believe it is more appropriate to develop change this way than by introducing legislation, which could place an unacceptable burden on the NHS and prevent the future flexibility required for food standards.

"Hospitals care for people of all ages, with a wide variety of health conditions and nutritional needs, along with huge numbers of visitors at all hours of day and night. One size will not fit all and decisions about the provision of hospital food are therefore rightly made by local NHS organisations."

Having seen over 20 voluntary government initiatives fail to improve hospital over the past two decades at a cost of over £50m to the taxpayer, I cannot in all good conscience continue to support yet another voluntary initiative, which I have every reason to believe will be ineffective

Currently, the monitoring of hospital food is carried out in a number of ways. The Care Quality Commission has responsibility for inspection against registration standards, which include a high-level standard relating to food and drink, and the body also collects annual inpatient survey data from all acute hospitals. In addition, annual Patient-Led Assessments of the Care Environment (PLACE) assess the quality of food in every NHS hospital. In future, PLACE will also monitor compliance with the standards recommended by the HFSP.

But the response has been rejected by Sustain after the news last month that Alex Jackson, co-ordinator of the Deartment of Health's Hospital Food Standards Panel, has resigned in protest against the 'chaotic and unfair plans'.

"Having seen over 20 voluntary government initiatives fail to improve hospital over the past two decades at a cost of over £50m to the taxpayer, I cannot in all good conscience continue to support yet another voluntary initiative, which I have every reason to believe will be ineffective," he said.

"The Department of Health must recognise its responsibility to hospital patients and apply legally-binding standards for hospital food. It could easily have achieved this by supporting Lady Cumberlege’s Hospital Food Bill , which would have introduced legally-binding standards for hospital food for the first time but, staggeringly, it chose not to do so.”

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