Figures that suggest some hospital trusts commit as little as 90p per meal, while some spend as much as £22.31 per patient per day, have been dismissed as misleading and inaccurate by industry professionals.
Data by the NHS Information Centre filed in the House of Commons library last week gave details of spending on food and drink in 2010-11 by more than 350 primary care trusts, foundation hospitals and other NHS bodies.
The latest spending figures prompted concern that NHS managers were trying to cut corners, with the result that patients' health was suffering. Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, told the Guardian: "Sadly, catering is not seen as a priority by the NHS, but it's a false economy."
Like for like
But Janice Gillan, chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, described the figures as misleading because benchmarking exercises such as this need to compare like for like. "You need to compare apples with apples but in some situations you might not even be comparing apples with another fruit," she said.
"Is the quoted figure the spend on food or does it include the production and delivery of the meals? What about on-the-ward beverages, biscuits and milk or does that come out of the ward's budget?"
According to Kate Gould, managing director of KEG Catering Consultants and a Foodservice Consultants Society International member, the numerous variables, including the size of the hospital and the way the contract is set up, make it very difficult to accurately report the statistics.
"An in-house operation won't have the same purchasing power as one of the huge contractors, which can get discounts based on the massive volumes it buys," she explained. "That has a big influence on cost."
Patient mix and their varying needs will also impact the catering spend, according to Gillan. A hospital with a large number of cystic fibrosis patients, for example, who need about 8,000 calories a day, will have to spend a lot more than one that does a lot of elective surgeries where the patients might just need soup and a sandwich for lunch or an evening meal.
The research was further dismissed as unhelpful by Matthew Merritt-Harrison, managing partner of Merritt-Harrison Catering Consultancy. "The fact that a hospital might be spending a lot more on food doesn't mean it's giving patients better nutrition. If you're spending £140 a week per patient on food because you're not managing your catering in the most efficient way, then that's no good," he said.
However, all agreed that despite the inaccurate picture painted by the published figures, all hospitals are under increasing cost pressures as a result of rising food costs and tighter budgets.
Merritt-Harrison said that while the NHS has relatively low food costs as a result of the volumes in which it buys, it has still been subject to inflation in excess of 5% over the past year. "Most trusts are still applying cost improvement targets so the caterer is being squeezed from both directions," he added.
hospital food costs
Costs will include:
Costs might include:
Costs could also include (any of the following):
â- Disposables, for example, sandwich cartons
â- Cleaning materials
â- Equipment purchase and repair
â- Uniforms and laundry
â- Stationery and printing
â- IT and communications
â- Monitoring and quality assurance
By Janie Stamford
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