School caterers remain uncertain about the legal ramifications of the new nutrient-based standards for school meals.
Speaking at a Local Authority Caterers Association event last week, former association chairman and school meals consultant Patricia Fellows warned that meeting the standards at secondary school level could not be done.
Fellows suggested that this failure potentially opened caterers up to legal action as "getting close" to achieving the nutrient-based standards was not acceptable in the eyes of the law.
"This would be fine if the new rules were simply guidance but they are law and laws are supposed to be obeyed to the letter," said Fellows. "You can't get the perfect menu at secondary schools. You can't get near it, it's impossible."
However fellow panellist Michael Nelson, head of research at the School Food Trust, disagreed that meeting the standards for schools was beyond caterers given the greater menu choice on offer at secondaries.
"It's not impossible," he said. "We've already published three compliant menus on our website.
"There are another 21 secondary schools we are working with that have achieved complaint menus and we will start to publish those on our website from January of next year. It's certainly difficult to balance but it can be done."
Nutrient-based standards for school dinners came into force at primary schools in England this September.
They are due to come into force at Secondary schools in September 2009 but caterers have voiced concerns that the varied, grab-and-go heavy offers of many secondary school restaurants make achieving them extremely difficult.
Education inspection body Ofsted is responsible for enforcing nutrient-based standards in schools but at a Caterer school meals round-table debate in April a SFT representative said inspectors would be taking a "light-touch" approach to enforcement in the short-term.
Asked who had ultimate responsibility if a prosecution was bought against a school for failing to meet the nutrient-based standards, Nelson said it was his understanding that the buck would stop with the school's governors, not the caterers.
By Chris Druce
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