NHS patients can now judge the quality of the food at English hospitals in new online ‘league tables' published by the Department of Health.
Hospitals are compared for the quality and choice of their meals, whether the menu is approved by a dietician and whether fresh fruit is always made available. Inspections by teams of patients, nurses and carers also tested whether snacks were available between meals and the relative cost of food services.
The results - published on the NHS Choices website coincide with an announcement by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of new compulsory food standards to drive up the quality of meals. Any hospitals that do not follow the rules will be in breach of their "commissioning contract" - leaving themselves open to fines by the health regulator.
Perhaps to the surprise of many patients, no fewer than 211 of England's 1,257 hospital sites are given full marks for food quality, although none achieved 100% for choice.
The accolades for best meals went to Spencer Private Hospital, Kent (100% for quality, 99.58% for choice) BMI Lincoln Hospital (100% for quality, 99.58% for choice) and Royal South Hants Hospital (100% for quality, 99.16% for choice).
In contrast, Lee Mill mental health unit, Plymouth (35.19% for quality, 81.82% for choice) and Lucille Van Geest Centre, Peterborough (42% for quality, 83.42% for choice) are at the bottom.
A panel led by the head of the charity Age UK, and working with royal colleges and nutritional experts, drew up the legally-binding requirements that hospitals must:
* Screen patients for malnutrition and give each a food plan.
* Ensure patients get the help they need to eat and drink, including "protected meal times" where appropriate.
* Promote healthy diets for staff and visitors - complying with Government recommendations on salt, saturated fats and sugar.
* Source food in a "sustainable way" - so it is also good for the food industry and bought within the local economy if possible.
Experts are concerned that, when a patient is malnourished, it makes recovery more difficult, increases length of stay and can lead to pressure sores and infections.
Hunt said: "We are making the NHS more transparent, giving patients the power to compare food on wards and incentivising hospitals to raise their game. Many hospitals are already offering excellent food to their patients and staff. But we want to know that all patients have nourishing and appetising food to help them get well faster and stay healthy."