The public arena
Published:  31 August, 2007

Public sector procurement of food and catering services runs to some £1.8bn, but only a fraction is spent locally. Keren Sall finds out why

Although government policy supports the procurement of local food on the public plate, getting it there isn't as easy as it sounds. Many public sector catering managers and buyers feel daunted by the issues surrounding sustainable food procurement and, as many institutions have long-term contracts in place, it is truly difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps the real question is, can entrenched food purchasing policies be transformed?

Hospitals, schools, the armed forces, the prison service - all these institutions have a complex supply chain dominated by whole-salers, distributors and contract caterers, which operate on national, sometimes even international, scales. The buying power of these companies and the restrictions imposed by long-term, and sometimes, inflexible contracts make it difficult for smaller producers and companies to make an impression at a local level.


But that is slowly changing as the Public Sector Food Procurement Initiative makes its impact felt, with its goal of raising the amount of regional food bought by public sector organisations. The government, through Defra, has been appointing representatives, whose job is to help public sector organisations follow that remit.

Melissa Love is project manager for the south-east of England. Last year - her first year in the post - she says she had to work on the demand side. "I had lots of farmers and suppliers coming to me saying they wanted to supply their local hospital, but the NHS wasn't interested." Now, however, Love has built up a healthy demand, but it was not an easy task. "I phoned them, nagged them and took them out to lunch to get them excited."

She also held awareness generation events and introduced them to suppliers. "I have a strong network of contacts - 20-30 buyers whom I can call and ask for X, Y or Z information. It has taken a long time to get to this point."


The hardest thing, she reveals, as many suppliers will testify, is getting public sector buyers to act. "Some of them sound keen and maybe someone above them says, 'This does not apply here' or 'We can't do this because that's not the way we do things here.' Plus they believe, incorrectly, that they need to get rid of all their existing suppliers."

But that is not true, she adds. All public sector buyers need to do is to sit down with their wholesaler and tell them that they want to buy more local food and in season too. "They will need to look at menus and seasonality charts. People think the whole process is harder than it is. Buyers don't need to wait for their next tender to come up before they start procuring local produce."

However, if they do need a helping hand, Love and her counterparts in the different regions are more than happy to provide that and help write tenders.


Companies who want to supply food may also be at a loss as to what they need to have in place to be considered for public sector contracts. At the very least, they will need to be Farm Assured. On top of that, they may need British Retail Consortium accreditation. If suppliers haven't got that, Love and her counterparts can help them get it - maybe through some funding and training. Regional project managers can also help understand the terminology used in tenders such as

"Expression of Interest".

Love can help farmers who have come together for the first time to fulfil a meat order. She recounts a recent experience when a farmer phoned her with 48 hours to go to tender in a panic. "He said, 'We have come to the screen where we have to input all these nutritional values for every steak and sausage. What do we do?'" she says. "I told him to get a Meat Buyers Guide because it has all the standard nutritional values that are used in public sector specifications."


Despite the difficulties and obstacles, there are several examples of meat processors, farmers and catering processors who have been successful in winning public sector tenders. One such business is Bradshaw Brothers, based in Staffordshire, which began as an abattoir serving local producers. The abattoir was closed after foot-and-mouth in 2001 and the Bradshaws diversified their existing farm business by developing a wholesale butchery business (Bradshaw Bros Ltd) through the purchase of a £100,000 cutting plant and four lorries and vans.

In July 2004, the company opened a farm shop, selling a range of meat from its own farm, various local markets and 12 local farmers. Bradshaws have a supply contract with Staffordshire County Council to supply child and elderly daycare centres with meat, cooked meat, sausage, bacon and bread. In addition it supplies directly to nursing homes in the area and about 95 retail shops and eight pubs/restaurants in the Midlands. This gives local producers the opportunity to have

access to other markets - namely, the public sector - that they would not be able to reach as individuals.

The Cumbrian way

Public sector authorities have likewise been trying to buy locally and sustainably, as BPEX's Sustainable Procurement Survey 2007 shows, says BPEX trade sector manager, foodservice Tony Goodger. Of the 204 Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in the UK, 180 responded and 85% said they include sustainability criteria in their food supply contracts, although this falls by 10% to 75% when it comes to structuring the meat supply contract, so small or local producers can tender for all or part of it. Only 28% did not know what proportion of their meat came from local suppliers, although 33% buy in excess of 75% from local firms.

Hampshire County Council has made great strides here and is increasingly cited as a local authority for others to emulate. In addition, its meals comply with the Hyperactive Children's Support Group, after the removal of 70 different additives and colourings.

For distribution, it relies on 3663, which holds proper liability insurance, as local authorities are seen as a soft target. All the beef and lamb bought in is local. Some pork is local and some comes from The Netherlands. But currently, it has found no sustainable source of poultry.

For some years, Cumbria County Council's Graham Lewis has also been trying to find ways, within EU guidelines, to encourage more local producers, processors and wholesalers to tender for contracts and supply more of the food products that his schools, homes and day-care customers consume.


Lewis identified early on the crucial role of distribution, either in opening up new market opportunities or in presenting a major barrier to success. Small suppliers could not afford delivery to over 200 schools and neither did schools want to be handling extra vehicle movements nor dealing with lots of individual producers and processors. His solution has been to clearly separate distribution from production, directing new producers and processors towards existing wholesalers already delivering to his customers, with a separate contract covering their costs of receiving, storing and distributing. The new supplier only has to tender for the supply of product to just one point of distribution.

When the Hodge family at The Pie Mill won a tender to provide Lewis' schools with specially developed pies, they not only met nutritional and pricing requirements, but also stayed true to their passion for sourcing key ingredients locally.

Their meat can be traced back through Steven Airey, whose family has run a small, local abattoir and butchery business near Grange-over-Sands for several generations, and beyond to the fields near Hawkshead, where farmer Eric Taylforth rears a variety of pedigree beef cattle, including Galloways. The Pie Mill's pies are then delivered to Pioneer Foodservice at Carlisle, also a long-established family business supplying a wide range of goods to Cumbrian County Council customers.


But Tom Hastings, managing director of Heathfield Meats, a catering butcher in Eastbourne, is not keen on having any middlemen, as it is another layer of cost to factor in. He delivers the cuts directly to the university, hospital or school's kitchen or central production unit.

Hastings is also quick to point out that supplying to the public sector is not as easy as it sounds. "You must have great hygiene and quality standards and continue to maintain them and that is time-consuming."

HACCPs are important and his firm has its HACCPs audited by Supplier Training Services. "We are dealing with the elderly and the young, so we can't afford to take any risks. Traceability is so important and that is why we source locally where possible."

Heathfield Meats, which moved from the centre of town to a purpose-built factory on an industrial site, has just secured contracts to supply meat to a few state schools in

September. Previously it just supplied

hospitals, care homes, universities and private schools. "Headmasters are deciding who they want to appoint to supply their schools,"

says Hastings.


Headlines that caterers are being forced to pull out of school meal contracts, because increasing regulations and public sector expectation are making the sector unviable, are just not true, according to Love. "For every caterer or supplier that pulls out, there is another who is ready to jump in," she says.

School meals suffered a setback back in 2005, when Jamie Oliver lashed out at the quality and type of food served. Parents understandably expressed their concern and uptake of school meals dived. The introduction of healthy meals for those whose diet was chips, chips and more chips was anathema and, predictably, didn't help improve the

situation. Prue Leith, head of the School Food Trust, recently expressed that the gargantuan task of pleasing an increasingly savvy Starbucks and YouTube generation was not easy and was more about the environment teenagers are expected to eat in, which feels Dickensian in contrast to their normal social arena. Food has changed and this too has to change.