Revealed: why food for frontline health workers risks going to waste

‘Truckloads’ of food given to the NHS by well-meaning groups is at risk of being wasted because hospital catering managers cannot guarantee its safety. Nick Hughes reports.

The heroic work of restaurants and charities to provide food to NHS staff has been among the most heart-warming stories to emerge from the coronavirus crisis. But concerns have been raised that, despite the best intentions of providers, large amounts of food risk being wasted because hospital catering managers cannot guarantee its safety.

The Hospital Caterers Association has told Footprint that the generosity of groups donating surplus food has created a situation where accepting it risks breaking strict guidelines on what can be served in a hospital setting.

“Everyone is falling over themselves to support frontline NHS workers and that means major suppliers are providing truckloads of food,” said Hospital Caterers Association national chairman Craig Smith. “Quite rightly they think it’s a really nice idea to offer this food which they haven’t been able to distribute commercially, but what this means is that we’re losing the integrity of the food chain.”

Smith said it is “critically important” that hospitals don’t simply accept everything that’s been given to them, albeit in good faith. “We accept the charitable idea that’s behind it, but in healthcare we take the food chain so seriously that we can’t have everybody and anybody piling in with stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult for the catering manager to say, ‘do you know what, it looks like lovely food but I really can’t accept it because I don’t know where it’s come from’.”

While some food has been supplied to hospitals with the intention of being served to patients the majority is intended for staff, many of whom are working long hours in oppressive conditions. Although some hospitals have kept canteens open with social distancing measures in place, others have closed altogether creating an additional challenge for staff to ensure they remain well fed.

Smith said that while there are strict guidelines in place for the food that can be served to patients, hospitals also take the safety of staff and visitors extremely seriously. He added that some food is being brought to hospitals in a hot condition with no way of catering staff knowing for certain whether it has been kept at the right temperature, or is intended for immediate service. As a consequence, potentially good food risks being wasted because caterers cannot take undue risks around foodborne diseases.

“One hospital I was talking to accepts hot food in good faith from suppliers,” Smith said. “They put it straight into the service counter and it gets served for one hour, and after that it is simply disposed of because they can’t guarantee anything more.”

Smith said catering managers also have concerns about accepting sandwiches because of the risk of listeria, a risk that has to be managed extremely carefully in a hospital setting. “If we don’t keep our eyes on this kind of issue then that could come up behind us and bite us quite badly,” he said.

A number of restaurants and caterers have joined forces with charities and community groups to distribute food to people working on the NHS frontline. One of the highest profile is FeedNHS, which was launched by Leon founder John Vincent alongside actors Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory and Matt Lucas, and raised £1m in its first two weeks of fundraising. FeedNHS has since joined forces with other providers including Mealforce, Feed our Frontline and BaxterStorey to co-ordinate the provision of food for critical care teams across the NHS.

A FeedNHS spokesperson said: “Leon is completely committed to the food safety of what we serve to NHS staff. We set up a clear agreement before serving, which includes providing evidence of our food safety programme and running through a checklist of the menu items, their ingredients and allergens along with providing that information with every single delivery. As an established food business these are the operation standards we uphold every single day, and at this time we are taking extra precautions with our team: they are serving from kitchens that are dedicated to providing NHS meals, following strict safety and social distancing guidelines in the preparation of the food as they do so. All team members have offered to do this work and we ensure they feel as safe as possible while they do it”.

Last week, Wrap issued updated guidance for determining whether products are fit to eat and redistributable after their ‘Best Before’ date. The guidance states that when surplus food is collected or received by the redistribution organisation it is then their responsibility to keep it safe – to make sure it is transported, stored and, if relevant, cooked properly. Organisations should also ensure their volunteers and staff have the appropriate food-hygiene training.

For in-depth analysis of how caterers are getting food to the NHS frontline look out for Wednesday’s Footprint Premium alert.


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