Caterers will have to give fair access to small and local producers across public sector contracts worth up to £2b a year from September, after the Government announced it was launching new Government Buying Standards (GBS) for food and catering services.
The move has been broadly welcomed by the industry but there were still some reservations as to how the standards would be policed.
Food minister Jim Paice outlined the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs' (Defra) initiative last week. It includes a set of mandatory standards covering 16 impact areas including animal welfare and seasonal produce (see below), as well as a list of best practice standards, to be implemented "where this does not increase overall costs".
Paice said: "This is the delivery of a Government promise to ensure we do not use taxpayers money to undermine our own farmers' high standards of production. By doing so we're practising what we preach and challenging the rest of the public sector to follow."
One industry expert said the proposal was better than Defra's 2007 effort, the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative (PSFPI).
He described the PSFPI policy as a "lengthy tome made up of a series of broad and woolly statements that were impossible for the contractor to implement and the client to measure".
"The new standards appear to be an improvement," he added.
Meanwhile Tim Cookson, chairman of Acquire Services, said he did not expect contract caterers to struggle with the new Government guidelines. "It's just a conglomeration of the food service sustainability and best practices, many of which have been deployed in the private sector for some time," he said. "They're often used by private sector organisations to demonstrate their best practice principles so as to differentiate themselves from their competitors."
Despite this, concerns still remain over the cost of putting all of the mandatory standards into practice and the difficulty of policing it.
Peter Pitham, managing director of Catering Consultancy Bureau, said that while the idea behind GBS was good in principle, its success could only be measured when put into practice and that measuring was not free.
"Sustainability comes at a price and as long as the Government appreciates this then all well and good. But the phrase ‘most economical' normally associated with public sector contracts will need to be redefined," he said.
"Contractors will have to spend money on ensuring the suppliers are actually keeping to their word and not just paying lip service to it."
However, a Defra spokesperson emphasised that the supplier was contractually obliged to adhere to the standards. "Anything they don't do will be a breach of contract," she explained.
While the caveat that the standards are mandatory as long as costs don't go up allows for the possibility that some contractors may declare them unachievable under those circumstances, the spokesperson for Defra said that was unlikely.
"We know from experience that it's perfectly possible to do this without increasing the costs. Obviously all the tendering is competitive and we know that a lot of contractors are already exceeding these standards. It shouldn't be an issue."
THE NEW GOVERNMENT BUYING STANDARDS
Mandatory GBS include:
â- Seasonal produce: Where fresh produce is used, menus are designed to reflect in-season produce, which is highlighted on the menu.
â- Fish: All fish demonstrably sustainable; where lunch and evening meal offered, fish is provided twice a week, one of which is oily.
â- Ethical trading: at least 50% of tea and coffee is fairly traded.
â- Reducing salt: Vegetables and boiled starchy foods such as rice, pasta and potatoes, are cooked without salt; salt is not available on the tables.
â- Full details available at http://sd.defra.gov.uk/documents/spec-food.pdf
PSFPI priority objectives: â- Promote food safety, including high standards of hygiene.
â- Increase the consumption of healthy and nutritious food.
â- Improve the sustainability and efficiency of production, processing and distribution.
â- Increase tenders from small and local producers and their ability to do business.
â- Increase co-operation among buyers, producers and along supply chains.
â- Improve the sustainability and efficiency of public food procurement and catering services.
By Janie Stamford
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