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Food safety still a concern with free school lunch boxes

Schools encouraged to run box schemes to maintain contact with families.
27 January 2021 , Katie Coyne

Food safety concerns have still not been addressed following the free school meal parcels scandal in England that broke in the middle of January.

Focus in the mainstream media and on social media has been on the scant quantities and poor nutritional value some of the parcels provided. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described them in Parliament as “appalling” and an “insult”.

However, pictures circulated also raised worrying food safety concerns – including foil-wrapped ham portions, and tuna decanted into inappropriate materials such as moneybags – raising issues around the materials being used to repackage items. And there was no indication on multiple images shown that use-by-dates had been supplied, or allergen information provided.

CIEH president Julie Barratt, an EH legal trainer and barrister, said: “This is a major fail and there is no argument that can defend it. What happened in those food parcels was just wrong. You cannot justify sending food out wrapped in non-food packaging, with no instruction on use-by or storage.”

She added: “I don’t think the argument ‘we were trying out best’ is a fair thing to say, it’s not about giving it your best shot. COVID kills people but so does food poisoning and we are talking here about vulnerable children at that.

“There is a bit of a Victorian attitude to say that children should be grateful for what we are giving them – but we have food standards to protect children and people in the community.”

The Department for Education did not provide an official comment but a spokesperson said it did have strict guidance for food safety. However, food safety is not mentioned in the School Food in England guide, or in the School Food Standards guide, beyond the need to provide allergenic information.

In the government guidance on providing free school meals during the pandemic there are just a couple of lines: catering for children with special diets including allergens is mentioned, and food safety is referenced only in terms of a recommendation for packs to include food parcels rather than pre-prepared meals.

The spokesperson said the department had held an emergency meeting with Public Health England and the charity LACA, which represents school caterers, shortly after the issue was raised in the media, but could not confirm whether food safety was discussed at this meeting. They did say that the guidance was being updated but this had not yet been done as this story was published [27 January]. DfE also advised that it was the school governors' responsibility to ensure school food standards were met.

Barratt said she would not have described what was provided by DfE as “strong” food safety guidance. She said: “It alludes to things that people need to do. If you know what you are doing, the guidance reminds you, but if you don’t know what you are doing, the guidance is of no assistance at all.

“It’s not guidance, it’s talking about what you send out, it’s not talking about how it’s sent out and the steps that you take when you package it.”

While there has been a mass move over to vouchers as the scheme run by Edenred re-started on 18 January, DfE is still encouraging schools to opt for a box scheme where possible. It said this was to create a point of contact between the school and vulnerable families. In England, while the vouchers are worth £15, Westminster recently upgraded this amount by £3.50 for schools providing food parcels.

An EHP in Wales, who wished to remain anonymous, said in the first lockdown in March last year his partner’s school started to provide food parcels, but he felt what he heard constituted “unsafe practices”. His partner fed this information back to the school and they switched shortly afterwards to direct cash payments.

He said: “You had people coming in, catering staff who would normally do the school meals. But what they were actually doing was repackaging, and getting catering packs into smaller sizes, but not providing the information that should go with it.

“It’s been done with the best of intentions – like with food banks, but they don’t take perishable products for this reason – at an emergency point to help the vulnerable children who use it. I am not sure the food safety implications were thought of.

He added: “It’s that panic: ‘all these children who are entitled to free school meals, we have to ensure that they all have food’. It’s done with the best of intentions and fortunately I’ve not heard of anybody who has been injured. But I am sure that had somebody been injured we would have had a massive enquiry.”

EH, or trading standards officers in Wales, coming across these practices in schools could have raised food safety concerns, however both professions have been pulled into other duties such as test and trace and enforcement.

Former CIEH president Dawn Welham, an EH consultant specialising in food catering and hospitality, urged for the DfE to work with the FSA to come up with food safety guidance for all schools. “That can be sent out to all schools in one fell swoop,” she said, “not by thousands of EHPs all around the country providing individual guidance to their local authorities when they are already massively overstretched.”

She added: “When you look at school food guidance it is very detailed and very precise so school caterers are used to following really detailed advice but they are now in new territory with COVID and they clearly need help in getting it right. Everyone is trying to do the right thing, let's help.

"There must be a simple way to support them to follow the rules and regulations, rather than saying ‘as a food business operator, we’ll leave it up to you’. Why would we not take the opportunity to make it easy to comply?”

LACA said it had no comment while the guidance was still being updated, and the FSA provided the following statement: “We were concerned to see images circulating on Twitter of free school meal parcels posing potential food safety issues, particularly the lack of use-by date and allergen labelling. We advised consumers who had received these parcels to report their concerns to the local authority.”

Both Wales and Scotland offer vouchers and food parcels, as well as direct payments. Northern Ireland only provides direct payments. The weekly cost of free school meals, or five lunches, has been valued at £13.50 in Northern Ireland, and £19.50 in Wales. In Scotland the value is set by the school based on local needs.

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