Patient's recovery are being slowed by NHS hospitals because they are serving meals that are unappetizing, tepid or downright inedible, according to a survey of catering at 97 health trusts.
The survey revealed that 40% of patients were having their meals supplemented by food brought in by relatives and friends. Over 37% of patients reported leaving a meal uneaten because it looked, smelled or tasted disgusting.
Over a fifth of patients claimed that the hospital meals were either too hot or too cold. A quarter of infirm patient who needed aid in eating claimed to not having received it. Besides this there was widespread criticism of lack of choice on the menu. Around four-fifths of patients said that they were not given the opportunity to choose meals in advance, while 18% said the dish of the day they liked sometimes ran out before the trolley reached their bedside.
Patient forums conducted the research. These are official bodies set up by the government to represent the interests of NHS users. On interviewing a sample of 2,240 patients in hospitals across England they discovered widespread dissatisfaction.
Among long-term patients, 37% said menus were changed on a daily basis and 22% said they were changed weekly, but 13% said they were changed less often.
The Food Watch survey was co-ordinated by the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, the forums' national umbrella body. Sharon Grant, chairwoman, said: "Proper nutrition is essential to recovery. Food should be of good quality and enjoyable - if it's not, it won't be eaten, and this seems to be borne out by our findings."
The commission said although the government launched a "better hospital food programme" in 2001, it was disbanded this year after spending £40m on investment in catering facilities. Ms Grant appealed to Patricia Hewitt, health secretary, to respond to "do for hospital food what Jamie Oliver did for school meals".
Their findings contrasted with evidence in the annual report of the health inspectorate which suggested that 96% of trusts met national standards on food. However last night Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern, said standards did not provide adequate protection.
Andy Burnham, health minister, said hospital food was much better than it used to be. "Last year, the independent Patient Environment Action Teams found that 90% of hospitals were rated 'good' or 'excellent' for food standards, compared with 17% in 2002. But we recognise that more needs to be done."