Her comments follow the publication late last month of a survey of Local Authority Caterers’ Association (LACA) members.
Nearly 80% of respondents forecast the standards would result in a drop in sales, while almost half believed this would force them to increase prices. Nearly 30% worried it might threaten the commercial viability of their services.
However, the SFT refuted the results and insisted that the standards (which require schools to ensure ‘average’ lunches meet guidelines on 14 nutrients) would not prompt sharp declines in take up.
SFT chief executive Judy Hargadon said it was highly unlikely that hordes of teenagers would abandon school dinners as new menus came in: “Schools and caterers have a virtually guaranteed customer base - provided they market it well. Many high street caterers would envy having such a captive audience.”
Meanwhile, food-based standards alone were not enough, she insisted. “Nutrient-based standards provide a much better way to limit the total amount of fat, sugar and salt ... and can ensure there is enough iron and calcium in an average lunch to meet pupils’ needs.”
She also rejected suggestions that the nutrient-based standards, which require menu planners to use software packages to analyse menus for compliance, were too difficult to implement. While caterers would need “professional support”, it was “common practice in modern life to take advice from experts”, she added.
Time consuming and complex
However, nutritionists contacted by Food Manufacture said the required menu-planning was time consuming and complex, while most doubted that Oftsed inspectors had the requisite skills or expertise to enforce the rules anyway. Only a third ofLACA members said they were confident of being compliant with the new standards by September.
Rachel Brown, company nutritionist at school meals supplier Green Gourmet, said: “Ofsted inspectors are not registered dieticians in their spare time.”
She added: “These standards are very restrictive to creativity.” It was also difficult to get enough iron and zinc into menus to meet the nutrient standards without violating the food-based rules, which restricted the provision of meat-based products such as beef burgers, she said.
While it was easy to meet calcium or iron requirements simply by increasing the provision of milk or spinach, many pupils did not like them, added dietician Gaynor Bussell. “It’s one thing meeting the standards and another thing whether children actually want to eat what you are offering.”
McCain had developed a new range of steam-blanched potato products to fall in line with the food-based rules, but remained frustrated by the inflexibility of the SFT. The organisation had laudible aims but lacked pragmatism, said corporate affairs director Bill Bartlett.
“The biggest issue for us has been the food-based standards, which restrict the use of our chips because of the cooking method even though they are still very low in fat. But the nutrient-based standards could also have a negative impact if they reduce overall uptakes.”
LACA’s main gripe is that secondary schools are completely different to primary schools (where the nutrient-based standards already apply), said former LACA chairman Sandra Russell. “If you have a fixed number of children sitting down and eating a main meal and dessert every day supplied from one serving point, as you do in primary schools, the calculations might actually mean something.
“Many secondary schools operate a cafeteria system where up to 1,500 children have 30 minutes or less to queue up and pay as they go, picking up bits and pieces from multiple service points. The numbers also vary wildly from day-to-day.
“Against this backdrop, we’re being asked to do incredibly onerous and complicated calculations on figures that are completely meaningless as the number of ‘meals’ is purely notional.”
However, Eileen Steinbock, head of Health and Nutrition at Brakes, said the problems were not insurmountable. She added: “The most challenging areas are the time and expertise to do the calculations and the availability of the data. To assist caterers, Brakes has provided data, including all the micronutrients required for the 600 most popular products, directly to all the software suppliers.
"We have also had meetings with customers to advise them how to do the calculations. We are continuing to add compliant menus to the website all the time.”