Loopholes and lack of data undermine public sector food buying

12 November 2020

A six-year-old plan to improve public sector food procurement cannot show results because of loopholes and a lack of auditing, MPs were told.

MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee were told exemptions in the rules meant standards could be dropped if costs rose, while a lack of data meant progress could not be measured.

The committee is investigating the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Plan for Public Procurement, published in 2014 with the intention to improve public sector food buying. 

In a foreward to the plan then prime minister David Cameron said: “Central government departments have already committed to using this procurement framework – and I expect many schools and hospitals around the country to do the same.”

MP Neil Hudson told the committee the standards stated all food served must meet UK legislative standards for food production and animal welfare, but if this led to a “significant increase in costs” that could not be compensated, parties could agree to drop the standards.  

Giving evidence Rob Percival, head of food and health policy at the Soil Association, said: “These loopholes are entirely unhelpful.

“We know that there's some cost balancing to be done if you want to serve better produce in public settings, but it's entirely achievable.”

David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA, warned nobody knew the impact of the plan because “Defra has not audited the scheme at all in the six years that it's been operating”.

“We need mandatory standards, transparency and better standards.” 

Bowles said it was “ironic” the government had made assurances animal welfare standards would not drop in trade agreements made after Brexit, “when their procurement rules allow them to go for lower animal welfare standards than legislation”. 

Ruth Westcott, sustainable fishing and climate coordinator at food standards campaign group Sustain, said: “There is a lack of data around how much impact the standards have had, both in terms of how well they are being implemented, and the impact on producers and farmers that could be benefiting from the standards.” 

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