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Government warned its one-stop-shop plan for public sector food could be ‘devastating’

Published: 15th February 2023

Government plans to replace regional and local buying and distribution agreements for food and catering services with a centralised listing of all suppliers managed by a single ‘prime supplier’ have been criticised by catering leaders.

Led by the Cabinet Office, the idea is to tender for a single wholesaler or consortium to run the £100m, four-year contract to supply schools, hospitals, care homes, local authorities and the devolved administrations.

Matthew White, chair of the Public Sector Catering Alliance (PSCA), said: “Jaws hitting the floor is somewhat of an understatement in terms of reactions from public sector caterers, who have not, to my knowledge, been consulted at all in terms of these plans.

“It would appear that this has been slipped under the table, which is hugely disappointing.

“The impacts of this plan as it is currently understood could be devastating to the work that has gone on in terms of sustainability, food standards, encouraging the use of British food, local supply and the adoption of SME’s.

“To create a one-stop-shop is quite frankly dangerous; if we learned one thing from the pandemic it must be that we cannot afford to put all our eggs in one basket.

“Competition in the market place is key and the thought that a ‘one size fits all’ mentality would work across the complex delivery of catering services across the whole of the public sector is quite frankly naïve.

“I trust there will be some form of consultation now this story has broken and I urge putting caterers front and centre of this debate along with supply chain partners who, after all, understand public food.”

The strategy has been drawn up by the government’s Crown Commercial Service (CCS), which is part of the Cabinet Office, with the contract award scheduled for later this year before a launch in the spring of 2024.

It is expected to cover 14,000 food and drink products as well as catering services, with CCS claiming the aim is ‘to help public sector buyers access local and seasonal food from local SME food suppliers’.

But wholesalers say they fear the new system could create a monopoly that would see smaller regional operators squeezed out.

Members of the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) say the plan demonstrates poor understanding of the complexity of public sector provision and may lead to diminished service for school, hospital and local authority catering contracts.

James Bielby, chief executive of the FWD, said: “It’s extraordinary that CCS has gone this far without consulting the companies that keep the public sector fed and watered. It has shown a basic misunderstanding of the complexity of public sector contact fulfilment, and of distribution to thousands of outlets with individual needs.

“There is currently a diverse landscape of businesses supplying the public sector, where regional SMEs and larger wholesalers happily coexist. The creation of this scheme raises a very real danger that SMEs could find themselves excluded, and their customer knowledge and distribution expertise will be lost.

“Delivery of nutritious, cost-efficient food and drink to schools, hospitals and other local authority contracts is best maintained by realistic investment in the current structure.”

Source: Public Sector Catering
Editor: David Foad

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