Why are schools buying chicken dinners from Thailand?

By Michael Barker

Public money is being used to buy imported chicken for school dinners, hospital canteens, prisons and military bases. When British poultry is so readily available, why is this happening?

There are few things more important to a parent than what they feed their kids, as the disproportionate success of organics in the baby food category bears witness. So when a BBC investigation revealed in February that Scottish schools were sourcing Thai chicken to feed the nation’s children, it struck a particularly raw nerve.

While there’s a perception among many that locally produced food is healthier than that flown across the globe – procurement body Scotland Excel insists all poultry it provides is of the highest standard, irrespective of source – there is a feeling among farmers and the wider public that Scotland’s producers are being let down at a time when support for local is supposed to be at its zenith.

Certainly the statistics are pretty damning for a nation that rightly prides itself on the strength of its food production: according to a 2013 Freedom of Information request by Green MSP Alison Johnstone, only one of Scotland’s seven cities was serving local, Scottish chicken in its school canteens, with Dundee and Perth as little as 14%. This year’s BBC investigation, furthermore, found that 28 councils spent a combined £1.3 million on Thai chicken, with North Lanarkshire a particular culprit.

If the figures could be extrapolated across the UK as a whole, it would paint a damning picture of lack of support for domestic production and a price-first policy that seems to fly in the face of public government pronouncements of supporting British farmers, particularly when you take into account the strides being made abroad.

As Johnstone herself wrote in a column for Poultry Business: “It doesn’t have to be this way. Other European cities are making progress in moving to food systems that prioritise home-grown, local foods. 88% of food served in Copenhagen’s public schools, hospitals and other institutions is organic and sourced from local suppliers.”

A complex chain

Public procurement of food is a complicated business, involving a network of local authorities, caterers and individual institutions. And it’s vast too – according to Soil Association figures, the public sector currently serves some 3.5 million meals each weekday across schools, nurseries, care homes, hospitals and prisons.

Essentially, buyers have to meet one of two levels as set by Government Buying Standards: Mandatory, which cover central government procurement and are encouraged for wider public sector tenders; and Best Practice, which are for any organisation concerned about sustainable procurement. For chicken, all food served must be produced in a way that meets UK legislative standards for animal welfare, as well as UK food production standards.

There are no precise figures available for how much home-produced food is supplied into the public arena, but the British Poultry Council certainly believes the domestic industry has what it takes to step up and supply more.

“The poultry meat industry is the only livestock sector that is capable of quickly scaling up production to support increased self-sufficiency of the UK,” says chief executive Richard Griffiths. “However, much depends on the government’s attitude to food and farming in general. If we see the much-needed commitment to British food production then we are in a good position to take advantage of opportunities. We know that consumers trust British food, and we must build on that.”

The government is at least making the right noises, and has been taking steps to try to simplify what can be a highly complex process. In 2014 the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition published its Plan for Public Procurement, written by Dr Peter Bonfield, the cornerstone of which was the creation of a balanced scorecard aimed at streamlining previous standards and guidance to bring a consistent buying approach across the public sector. The scorecard takes into account price, production, health and wellbeing, resource efficiency, socio-economic factors and quality of service, and is said to bring a level playing field and offer more choice. In a nutshell, it emphasises that the discussion should be about more than simply cost.

At a food safety level, meanwhile, Assured Food Standards has been working with the major caterers, and the majority are now Red Tractor accredited. While Red Tractor does not automatically mean British, it is very much a de facto link in many people’s eyes. That’s welcome news, but as a net importer of poultry to the tune of £1.5 billion every year, there’s still further to go in ensuring sufficient UK availability to meet requirements.

While EU rules make it impossible for governments to overtly stipulate that their own country’s produce should be favoured over others, there are ample hints that procurers should look closer to home. The Bonfield report included a foreword by then Prime Minister David Cameron in which he said British farmers “are well-placed to benefit significantly from this new approach”. Incumbent Defra secretary of state Liz Truss added that the plan “will mean that schools, hospitals and other public sector bodies will be able to choose the most healthy, tasty, local food, boosting high-quality, British producers.”

Brexit opportunity?

A laudable plan then, but is it enough? It’s undeniable that EU legislation preventing the promotion of one member state over another hasn’t made life easy in public procurement, and that is one area where Brexit could give domestic producers a boost, according to Lorna Hegenbarth, food chain adviser at the NFU. But that does come with a caveat: “On the face of it, the inability to overtly ask for ‘British’ product in public sector contracts, as a result of EU competition law, should diminish as EU law will no longer be a factor,” she says.

“However the Great Repeal Act will simply copy and paste that law into UK law, and it may well be a considerable amount of time before that is revisited post 2019.”

Either way, she adds, WTO-GPA, United Nations UNCITRAL and World Bank guidance all still generally prohibit protectionist public procurement policies, which will continue to pose a problem.

The NFU is therefore pursuing a more nuanced approach as part of its aim to get a higher proportion of British food served in public sector settings. There are countless surveys showing British consumers want to buy more home-produced food, and the union wants members to encourage purchasers to buy local wherever possible.

Some suppliers are taking the initiative themselves, and that may be the true catalyst for increasing the level of British sourcing in public meals. UK Foodhall, for example, which supplies over 14,500 schools, has a mission statement to provide healthy, local food for schools, and provides only British meat and poultry assured by Red Tractor, QMS, Freedom Food or Scotch Beef. Pointedly, UK Foodhall also highlights that its food “tastes great and is surprisingly affordable”.

The Soil Association has also laid out in its manifesto how the UK can improve the health and food habits of the next generation by upping ambitions for better public procurement. According to Lee Holdstock, trade relations manager at the organic body, “we have seen great success where the Food for Life catering mark has been specifically required within school catering contracts and this is becoming the norm”. The mark now covers food served to 1.7 million people every working day, and over half of all English primary schools.

Holdstock believes that with well-planned menus, close relationships with supportive suppliers and backing from wider organisations, the cost of sourcing higher-quality ingredients, such as organics, need not be seen as a barrier.

With Defra’s balanced scorecard aimed at acknowledging wider benefits against pure cost, it seems there is now real momentum behind making high-quality, locally produced food the norm in the public sector. There’s clearly a long way to go – and putting tangible numbers behind the progress will be particularly difficult – but there is at least a will currently that is beyond what has been seen before. Thai chicken isn’t likely to be completely off the menu anytime soon, but it should at least become a less common sight over the coming years.




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