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£50m wasted on attempts to improve hospital food

Report reveals NHS catering is still bad despite decade of initiatives

Heston Blumenthal revealed in June that he had taken on a secret mission to devise a menu for NHS patients.

With the decade coming to an end, perhaps ministers believed that only the head chef of Britain's most garlanded restaurant, The Fat Duck, was capable of clearing hospital trays of plastic bread and gloopy stews.

Although Blumenthal has not divulged the results of his year-long quest to replicate Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign in hospitals, the NHS has proved a graveyard for the public-spirited work of fellow chefs Albert Roux and Loyd Grossman.

All of them have, so far, failed to reinvigorate the quality of food on the wards, according to a blistering report today by the food group Sustain.

It suggests that the Government has wasted £50m since 2000 on at least 17 initiatives to improve hospital food which have "resulted in almost no improvement to the quality of meals served, or to their nutritional and environmental value".

The report, A Decade of Hospital Food Failure, lists the schemes that have failed to transform NHS food – a failure graphically illustrated this summer by a patient who invited visitors to his blog to identify his meals in a game of "Hospital Food Bingo".

"Traction Man", who was being treated in the South-west, stressed that his medical care had been "fabulous", but added on the food: "Everything is minced and slushy and overcooked, and I guess that is the way that a lot of older patients need and want it. If you are a bit younger in need of vitamins and nutrition... it ain't going to work."

Ministers acknowledge that patients fed a nutritious diet recover more quickly and, with this aim, launched the £40m NHS Better Hospital Food campaign fronted by Masterchef presenter Loyd Grossman in 2001. Five years later the scheme was scrapped after the Hospital Caterers Association estimated fewer than half NHS trusts were making three recommended dishes. A quarter were making none.

Similarly, the £2.5m Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative, launched in 2003 to improve the sustainability of public sector food was scrapped in 2009 too, after proving inadequate.

In the past two years, independent reports have castigated hospital food. In 18 of the 21 hospitals checked by dietitians for the consumer group Which? last October, 86 per cent of meals contained too much salt, 67 per cent too much saturated fat and 52 per cent too much fat according to Food Standard Agency guidelines. Which? said the results were "farcical" given the role of hospitals in promoting health.

In August, Bournemouth University suggested patients were served worse food than prisoners. Meals were of poor quality and nutrition and nurses failed to feed patients who struggled to feed themselves.

In a parliamentary reply in April, ministers revealed that 2,600 people had died from malnutrition in hospitals and care homes in England since 2000.

Sustain said the problem was that the Government had failed to place legal requirements on caterers. The food campaigner Kath Dalmeny said: "The Secretary of State responsible for food standards, Hilary Benn, should admit that 10 years of expensive voluntary initiatives have failed... he must introduce legal standards for public sector food."

The Department of Health defended its initiatives. In a statement, it said: "Money spent on providing high quality nutrition to patients is not wasted. The majority of patients are satisfied with the food they receive in hospitals, and we are working to improve services further."

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs insisted: "The Government believes strongly in high-quality, nutritious food and using seasonably availability produce... we want to lead by example."

Recipes for disaster NHS food plans

*1995 Chef Albert Roux launches nutrition guidelines for hospital catering. Most hospital caterers ignore the guidelines.

*2000 £10m NHS Plan commits, among other measures, to new menu designed by chefs.

*2001 Loyd Grossman fronts the £40m Better Hospital Food Initiative, which creates 300 restaurant-style recipes. Most hospitals ignore the voluntary menus.

*2003 £2.5m Public Sector Food Procurement initiative aims to raise consumption of healthy food. Six years later ministers replace it with a Healthier Food Mark.

*2006 After his scheme is scrapped, Grossman says: "The Government has made no other plans for improving standards and I am extremely concerned that without a strong, persistent voice promoting the issue, it will slip through the cracks."

*2009 Study finds NHS patients are served worse food than prisoners.