A major Farmers Weekly investigation has uncovered serious failings in the way British hospitals are sourcing food for patients.
Statistics show NHS hospital trusts are serving up a postcode lottery for patients over whether they will get much British-sourced food at mealtimes.
We have discovered pockets of excellence where trusts are working hard to source home-grown food supplies from local producers.
But equally there are examples where hospitals are relying heavily on foreign imports that can be more costly and less environmentally sustainable – including chicken from Thailand and broccoli from Ecuador.
As part of our investigation, Farmers Weekly carried out a Freedom of Information (FOI) survey to find out how much British food NHS trusts were sourcing.
In January, we sent out more than 200 requests to trusts asking them about their food-sourcing policies and we received replies varying in detail.
We asked them to tell us about their total annual food spend, cost of food per patient per day, value/volume of British food, awareness of central government commitments to sourcing food that conforms to British welfare standards or higher, and any audits to show how trusts were delivering on their procurement policies.
Many trusts were not forthcoming with their answers – it took three months to gather information that should be freely available in the public domain.
- UK farmers missing out on millions in food contracts
- NHS trusts source as little as 25% home-grown produce
- Two-thirds don’t know origin of their food
Of the 160 trusts that did reply, it quickly became clear that some had taken steps to source more food locally, but others were making no or very little effort to support British farmers.
There is clearly a huge disparity in decision-making for food procurement in our hospitals. While some trusts source between 90-100% of their produce from Britain, others buy in as little as 25-40%.
When asked about the percentage of British food served to patients, 71% incredibly said they did not know. Most referred us to their suppliers, such as NHS Supply Chain – which accounted for 40% of trust food supplies last year – for further information.
Of those trusts that provided figures, on average around 70% of their food is made from home-grown sources, which was encouraging. Yet because so many trusts either could not or were not willing to answer this question, it’s unlikely the responses give a true representation.
Some trusts should be applauded for buying a high proportion of their food locally and preparing meals on-site. But others are buying ready meals prepared by catering firms in UK factories from ingredients shipped from thousands of miles away.
And despite Wales’ centre as a great sheep and farming area, some Welsh health boards are buying their lamb exclusively from New Zealand and Australia.
Our investigation also discovered serious attempts by the trusts and food wholesalers to hide crucial information that should be freely accessible to the public.
Therefore, we contacted five of the largest catering companies that supply food to hospitals – Sodexo, Apetito, NH Case, 3663, Brake Bros – but none were willing to discuss their food sourcing policies.
It’s easy to see why. Our survey showed that some major catering companies were routinely supplying food made from less than 50% of ingredients supplied by British farmers.
Our research showed significant regional variation on costs with hospitals allocating as little as £2.11 per day to cover breakfast, lunch and dinner for each patient – that’s an average of 70p per meal.
Trusts are spending as much as £14.40 on food per patient per day, but the average cost is £6-7, our survey found.
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However, buying local does not necessarily mean trusts spend more. We discovered that some trusts, such as Chester, Harrogate and Salford, were able to cover the daily cost of three meals for under £3, but still source 80-92% of their ingredients from British producers. If they can do it, why can’t they all?
Our campaign will deliver the most comprehensive research into NHS hospital food sourcing that’s ever been done.
Over the next six weeks, we will be lifting the lid on hospital food procurement practices, documenting trusts that perform well and badly, areas of improvement and the steps farmers could take to sell more of their produce to hospitals.
We are calling on readers to get behind our campaign and sign our petition demanding the government sets mandatory home-grown food procurement standards for NHS hospitals.
It’s time our hospitals Get Better, Get British – sign out e-petition now