WITH almost theatrical timing, the National Audit Office (NAO) last week released its controversial report on National Health Service catering just hours before the start of the annual conference of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA).
Explaining the findings of the report at Blackpool's Pembroke Hotel, three members of the NAO investigation team assured the conference the timing was purely coincidental.
HCA vice-president Ron Anderson, who acted as a catering advisor to the NAO, told delegates bluntly that while many hospital caterers were carrying out their functions well, others were failing in their duty.
The NAO surveyed 12 hospitals in England and Wales and analysed 1,500 patient questionnaires from 24 hospitals alongside reports from 420 NHS catering managers.
The report recommends hospitals set quality standards and targets, with patients being regularly sur veyed for their views. Better financial accounting is needed in many cases and meal sizes should be adjusted to meet patient needs and reduce waste. Caterers should also improve food presentation and ensure hot meals are delivered hot.
One delegate demanded an explanation for the disparity in feeding costs shown in the report. These ranged from less than ú2 per patient per day to around ú15, with an average of ú5.45.
According to Peter Clarke, audit manager for health with the NAO, the disparity was probably due to poor accounting procedures in some hospitals. He admitted, however, that the figures could be suspect.
The NAO decided to look at NHS catering in December 1991, starting its full investigation in March last year. The report is to be discussed by the Commons Public Account Committee in May. A Treasury response is to be made in August, with a follow-up investigation to be carried out in 1997.
lNational Health Service: Hospital Catering in England is available from HMSO bookshops, priced ú7.40.
TABLE: THE REPORT'S MAIN FINDINGS
l85% of patients said the food was good or excellent
l15% said food was poor
l25% of those under 35 described the food as poor
lIn one hospital, food was being regenerated in a way possibly in breach of DoH guidelines
lHalf of the hospitals surveyed required patients to order food three or more meals in advance