These deaths are tragic – but the rotten truth of hospital food is even worse, writes Radio 4’s Food Programme presenter SHEILA DILLON
The dollop of sludge on my plate defied belief. I prodded it with a fork, wondering how anything could look so unlike real food.
I was told it was potato, but it had the texture of plastic. I placed some on my tongue: it tasted like plastic, too. Whatever this was, it wasn’t nutritious. I was reminded of Smash, the heavily-processed dried potato flakes of yesteryear. Yet Smash was practically cordon bleu compared to this NHS version.
I phone a friend who lived nearby and begged her: ‘Please bring me some bread and cheese and a bit of fruit. I’m starving!’
The dollop of sludge on my plate defied belief. I prodded it with a fork, wondering how anything could look so unlike real food (pictured, Sheila Dillon)
I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, in 2011. Since then I have had three stays in hospital, over several nights, after contracting infections during chemotherapy.
Treatment is not always pleasant, but I have never been so ill that I was unaware of everything around me and so I have seen at first hand how badly most hospitals handle meals.
I have been recalling that experience over the past weekend after reading that five people have now died after contracting a form of food poisoning known as listeriosis from eating NHS sandwiches contaminated with the bacteria, listeria. Hospital patients, including pregnant women, babies and the elderly, are uniquely vulnerable to complications of food poisoning caused by the bacterium. It killed 33 people in 2017.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last weekend ordered a ‘root and branch’ review of NHS food as a result of the latest outbreak
Listeria monocytogenes (stock) as found in the pre-packaged food sold at hospitals
Health Secretary Matt Hancock last weekend ordered a ‘root and branch’ review of NHS food as a result of the latest outbreak.
It cannot come a moment too soon. I believe these deaths are a grave underestimation of the dire effects of appalling levels of nutrition in our health service.
Some NHS patients are served meals that cost less than £1 a head, according to figures compiled last year by NHS Digital.
Other hospitals spend only slightly more than £2 a day on each patient – a few pence more than the cost of a day’s food for a prisoner in our jail system. This is a problem that has been with us for years and for years we’ve been told repeatedly that it is being fixed.
The celebrity chef and TV presenter Loyd Grossman attempted to tackle the issue when he led the government’s Better Hospital Food initiative between 2001 and 2006.
Eventually he was forced to admit defeat, saying: ‘Our efforts were hampered by a lack of political will.’
Before that it was Albert Roux, co-founder of the Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche, brought in to improve hospital food standards in 1995. Two decades later, he was still bursting with frustration, calling for wholesale change to the hospital food system.
‘We must not think that high-quality hospital food is too difficult or expensive to achieve,’ he said. ‘But meetings, speeches and gimmicks do not work.’
As recently as 2015, Prue Leith (pictured), now star of the Great British Bake Off, tried to tackle the pitiful state of NHS catering. She warned that ‘few hospital kitchens are actually cooking any food. All the staff do now is reheat frozen meals’
He was right.
As recently as 2015, Prue Leith, now star of the Great British Bake Off, tried to tackle the pitiful state of NHS catering. She warned that ‘few hospital kitchens are actually cooking any food. All the staff do now is reheat frozen meals’.
So why, after the millions have been spent on these initiatives, have we seen so little progress? Indeed, it’s getting worse.
I believe it is partly it is because many of us expect hospital food to be dreadful: a throwback to the earliest days of the NHS after the war, when a spell on a ward didn’t seem so different from the rigours of national service. But today we understand much more about nutrition. The science linking our gut with our immune system is revolutionising our understanding of what underlies good health – though doctors still learn almost nothing about it at medical school.
After my own experiences on a chemotherapy ward, I decided to investigate how diet influences our vulnerability to illness and what we can do to minimise our risk.
Anyone with cancer, for example, should eat plenty of vegetables from the cabbage and onion families as well different kinds of mushroom. I learnt also that the spice turmeric can be very helpful for my own cancer.
Many patients are too ill, however, to control their diets to any serious degree. That is why hospitals should know better than to serve the cheapest low-quality food to save a few pennies. It’s short-sighted and counter-productive. Even if the meals are not actually toxic, poor nutrition will undermine expensive drug treatments and mean that recovery from illness takes longer.
Too often, as we now know, the food doled out on the wards, either reheated or taken from faulty chiller cabinets or transported hundreds of miles from a manufacturer, may be rife with potentially life-threatening microbes.
This is because, appalling as it seems, many new hospitals funded by the private finance initiative have been built without kitchens – to save money and maximise profits for investors. Instead, the hospitals are locked into contracts with big food corporations that deliver to scores of hospitals, many of them hundreds of miles apart.
The products are chilled, shipped out in lorries and often stored for days before being served to people who may be severely ill.
Is there really no better approach than transporting a sandwich 400 miles, when it could be made fresh on hospital premises, or nearby, and eaten within the hour?
In fact it’s not impossible to make healthy dishes that retain their flavour when reheated. Microwave meals can taste surprisingly good with the right ingredients and preparation.
But that costs money – and everything about the modern NHS seems geared towards driving costs down to the bare minimum.
In this sad story there are grim parallels with the supermarket horsemeat scandal of six years ago. The root cause of that was penny-pinching across the food chain: producers and retailers demanding the lowest prices imaginable, with nobody stopping to ask how a company could offer six burgers for £1, or whether safety standards were being ignored. The irony is that, if hospital food is inedible, the cheapest option is probably not to serve it at all.
As a patient I often sent my tray back untouched. The hospital could have saved money by giving me nothing and leaving me to order my ‘takeaways’ from friends.
Sadly, the nurses never seemed interested in whether or not I’d eaten, or concerned about the waste. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way and some hospitals are leading the way.
At the Royal Brompton NHS Hospital in London, meals are cooked for patients on site, using fresh produce from a network of local suppliers.
The system was set up by the ‘ambassador for hospital food’ Mike Duckett who, before he retired, won the Derek Cooper Award – given in honour of my late friend and colleague at Radio Four.
As a result, the Royal Brompton sends patients home in a better state of health than when they came in – which is surely the point of hospitals.
But until the NHS starts to take food seriously and encourages more hospitals to adopt this brave and innovative approach, it seems inevitable that more patients will die needlessly as a result of our absurdly dysfunctional food system.
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