The quality of public sector food is back in the spotlight after an investigation by the BBC’s Countryfile programme highlighted fears of widespread non-compliance with government standards.
Drawing on evidence from the ongoing environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) committee inquiry into public sector food, the programme highlighted loopholes that allow procurement rules to be circumvented and cost prioritised over quality.
Rules for public sector procurement require all food served in Whitehall, the armed forces, prisons, and civil servant canteens to meet UK standards for production. However, caterers are allowed to depart from this requirement where “this leads to a significant increase in costs which cannot reasonably be compensated for by savings elsewhere”.
Countryfile interviewed Andy Jones, chair of the PS100 Group, who demonstrated how intensively reared Dutch poultry meat destined for hospital food cost 10% less than the UK equivalent.
Rules that do exist aren’t enforced and are rarely monitored, according to the programme.
The UK government has said food that doesn’t meet UK standards won’t be permitted under future trade deals, however campaigners argue current procurement standards already permit UK producers to be undercut by lower standard imports.
World Trade Organisation rules mean countries are not allowed to favour public sector food based on national origin, however EFRA chair Neil Parish told Countryfile that UK standards could be improved to keep out lower standard exports so long as current procurement loopholes are closed.
The EFRA committee is also supporting the development of local food hubs which can enable smaller producers to fulfil public sector contracts in their locality.
The government said it had committed to a consultation on strengthening the government buying standards for food later this year.
Public procurement is also expected to feature heavily in the forthcoming second part of Henry Dimbleby’s national food strategy.
A Footprint survey of 25 foodservice businesses last year revealed that while some source 100% of their meat from UK and Irish farmers, others rely on Europe and the rest of the world for the vast majority of their chicken, pork, lamb and beef.