False economy with hospital food

SUE KEDGLEY
Last updated 05:00 05/06/2013

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There must be better ways of saving money in our health system than trying to slash the budget for hospital food.

OPINION: Unhealthy food is the leading cause of ill-health in New Zealand, with many people ending up in hospital as a result of poor eating habits and consuming too much processed, mass-produced, industrial food.

That's why giving hospital patients good quality, fresh food should be an integral part of healthcare and helping patients recuperate.

Good food provides the nutrients patients need to help them recover from illness. If patients don't get good food and are given cheap, poor quality, inedible food instead, they won't get the nutrients they need and will probably take longer to recuperate.

But instead of making healthy food a priority, the Government is proposing to cut the budget for hospital food by $10 million to $18 million a year by centralising some hospital food production, and giving global catering giant Compass a 15-year contract to make much of the food for New Zealand's hospitals from two central hubs in Auckland and Christchurch.

The mass-produced, pre-cooked factory food will be frozen, delivered to hospitals around New Zealand, reheated and served to patients.

The proposal is not driven by patient needs. It is driven by the need to cut costs in the health system. The Government has told district health boards they must cut about $700 million from the health budget over the next five years.

It has set up a board, Health Benefits Ltd, to find ways of doing this, and the board has come up with this bright idea.

The Government claims that slashing hospital food budgets won't reduce the quality of hospital food, but few believe this.

Compass already supplies food to various North Island hospitals, and kitchen staff report that it uses a lot of imported food - cheap, tasteless catfish from Vietnam, for example, or potatoes imported from the Netherlands.

I doubt there will be many nutrients left in food imported from the other side of the world, pre-cooked, frozen, then reheated and served up to a week later.

The silly thing is that centralising hospital food production has been tried before, and it was a spectacular failure.

In 1993, the government shut down hospital kitchens in Northland, Taranaki, Rotorua, and Southland, and contracted an Australian company called Tempo to produce all their hospital food in a kitchen located in the grounds of the Porirua psychiatric hospital.

Huge savings were promised, but after three years Tempo went bust. The company blamed its failure on an unrealistically low price for meals that had been negotiated, which, it claimed, could never be achieved.

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The same thing could easily happen again, as no hard data has been made available to justify the huge projected savings.

More than eight million hospital meals are made each year. If Compass miscalculated the savings it could make on hospital meals by even a small amount, as the earlier contractor did, the savings may never eventuate.

There are other risks. A huge variety of special diets is needed for hospital patients.

Diabetics and people with allergies need special diets, as do patients suffering from various illnesses. Tracking and retrieving all this food is extremely complex, and if patients were given the wrong food, there could be serious health consequences.

Then there are the risks of delays in transporting food, if bad weather closes roads, or there was a natural disaster.

At present some hospitals source much of their food locally. Under the new proposal, a lot of locally grown food would be trucked to Auckland or Christchurch, cooked and then trucked back again to local areas. How practical is that?

And I can't help wondering whether the additional administrative and transport costs of trucking all this food around New Zealand have been properly calculated, along with indirect costs such as the increased number of trucks on our roads?

Instead of centralising food production in Auckland and Christchurch, it would be far more sensible and sustainable if hospitals bought fresh, locally produced food and made it in-house, as some already do.

Buying and producing food locally would help ensure that as much hospital food as possible was fresh and healthy.

I would therefore urge the Government to scrap this particular cost-cutting initiative and look elsewhere for savings. The best way to reduce hospital budgets would be to reinstate public health initiatives, such as healthy food in schools, that would reduce the numbers of people ending up in hospital in the first instance.

Sue Kedgley is a former Green MP.

- The Dominion Post

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