Local authority organisations have slammed suggestions by a supermarket boss that they are driving down food costs and quality, in the wake of the horse meat scandal.
Traces of horse meat have been discovered in a range of meat products available to the public. Much of the food found to have contained equine DNA was on sale in major supermarkets, but last week it emerged that food served at 47 schools across Lancashire, as well as in some hospitals, had also been affected.
Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Malcolm Walker, chief executive of food retailer Iceland said: "There's a whole side to this industry which is invisible. That's the catering industry. Schools, hospitals, it's a massive business for cheap food and local authorities award contracts based purely on one thing - price.
"So if you are looking to blame somebody who is driving down food quality it is invisible - it's schools, it's hospitals, it's local authorities who are driving this down."
But the heads of the Local Authorities Caterers Association (LACA) and the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) have dismissed the claims that cost is the primary factor that determines contract awards. Anne Bull, chair of LACA, which represents the school food industry, said that from a local authority point of view, food has never been safer.
School meals were a major subject of attention for Tony Blair's Labour Government after celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched a campaign in 2005 to improve quality. Since then, nutritional standards have been introduced in state primary and secondary schools. "Procurement requirements for suppliers are very stringent and robust before they can even get on to tender lists. They must go through a pre-qualification questionnaire first," she explained.
"Food safety and nutritional standards are crucial for us. It's not cost-driven like it perhaps was in the CCT [compulsive competitive tendering] days; it's quality-driven now. Parents should be confident in the school food service, now more than ever, because it is good quality."
HCA chair Janice Gillan also denied Walker's allegations that tenders for hospital catering was focused on price, insisting that a supplier must meet quality and service delivery standards before it stands a chance of winning a bid.
She said: "A supplier would have to meet the mandatory criteria before it went through to the tender evaluation process. It may then be decided on price but all those on the shortlist would already meet the required quality standards."
The suggestion that local authorities share the blame for the horse meat scandal was also refuted by the Local Government Association. Its spokesman said:
"The chief executive of Iceland seems a little confused. The law is 100% clear that it is the responsibility of the manufacturer, supplier and retailer to make sure the product they sell us is what they say it is.
"There has been a major supply chain failure. That's not the fault of consumers, councils or hospitals. The companies that supply our food need to take responsibility and focus on getting their house in order. The vast majority of retailers, caterers and manufacturers are doing this. Iceland should do the same."