Just 39% of pupils required pay for school meals choose to eat them © Leon Neal/Getty Images
Just 39% of pupils required pay for school meals choose to eat them © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Public food buyers 'sacrifice quality for low costs'

15 July 2021

Current UK public procurement of food priortises cost over quality and is leading to “substandard food”, according to a report. 

The National Food Strategy said at least 60% of evaluation marks in public food tenders should be awarded for “quality rather than cost”. 

Currently, public bodies are allowed to prioritise price over quality in procurement decisions, with many assigning 50–80% of marks to price. This has often led to cheapest bids being successful, “leading to a race to the bottom among suppliers,” the report said. 

The government-commissioned strategy, led by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby, said: “Much of the food served by public bodies is bad.” 

It found only 39% of primary school children who are required to pay for school meals chose to eat them, and 42% of hospital patients rated the food as either satisfactory, poor or very poor. Over a third of the money hospitals spend on food goes on items that are thrown away. 

The report said “all tenders should be required to meet an achievable but high baseline standard for quality before cost is considered at all”. It said current loopholes allowing “substandard food” to avoid increases in costs should be removed. 

Over 13m people per year eat government funded meals, with the government spending £2.4bn on publicly-funded meals a year.

The report found the complexity of tendering processes made it difficult for smaller businesses to compete. 

The top four contract caterers – Compass Group, Sodexo, Westbury Street Holding and Elior – hold 61% of market share, which has “failed to encourage innovation”.

The report recommended government should increase the participation of small and local businesses in food procurement, and poor quality was in part driven by a lack of competition.

The wide-ranging review looks to offer a new approach to the UK’s food system, examining the sustainability of the UK’s food supply chains, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as ways to improve the nation’s health through a government-led food strategy. 

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee said earlier this year that public food procurement standards “should be mandatory” and the government was “missing the opportunity to support small businesses, improve animal welfare and promote sustainability within public sector rules for buying food”.

Tony Goodger, spokesperson for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, criticised the strategy for failing to acknowledge wider supply chain issues within the food industry. 

He said while the strategy acknowledges there is a 140,000 job shortage in the UK’s food processing industry, “there's nothing in the national food plan to encourage people into working in the food industry”. 

Goodger pointed to a mass labour shortage within the food industry resulting from the pandemic, which is leading to increases in labour prices by as much as 20%.

These increases in labour costs have resulted in predictions that food prices could increase by 5% by the autumn. 

He said the long-term consequences of these shortages means there'll be a reduction in choice in supermarkets, and Christmas food stocks such as turkeys, pigs in blankets and pork pies are already threatened. 

“If we haven't got the staff to make the food that's required now, we certainly haven't got the staff to make the food as needed in five months time,” he said, explaining how items such as pigs in blankets and stuffing are prepared over summer and then frozen in preparation for the winter months. 

The strategy comes after a series of major blows to the food industry, with Sainsbury’s last week warning of shortages of salad and fresh vegetables due to driver shortages. 

Estimates suggest that the freight industry is currently facing a shortfall of 90,000 drivers, after 30,000 HGV driving tests were cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The government has held emergency talks with logistics providers to tackle a shortage of lorry drivers threatening supermarket supplies, after the Road Haulage Association wrote to prime minister Boris Johnson stressing the need for action on the “crippling” effects of the driver shortage.

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