More than 6,000 tonnes of hospital food was thrown away by the NHS in England last year according to official statistics.
But with hospitals only recording the food waste they segregate and send to be composted or broken down in an environmentally friendly way, there are fears the scale of food being dumped in landfill or incinerated could be far greater.
NHS Digital’s annual infrastructure data collection shows NHS trusts in England reported sending 6,228 tonnes of food waste for anaerobic digestion or composting in 2019-20.
That’s 6.3 million kilograms – the equivalent of 75,000 average British men – although it was a significant drop on the 14,015 tonnes recorded in 2018-19.
More than half of trusts (112 out of 207) said they disposed of no food in this way – raising the possibility that far more is being thrown away with general waste.
Waste from both inpatient meals and canteens open to staff and visitors is included.
According to the UN, the carbon footprint for global food wastage is the equivalent of 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 every year – three times more than the entire aviation industry.
If food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third largest polluter, after China and the USA.
Rob Percival, head of food and health policy at environmental charity the Soil Association, said the waste of inpatient meals is a significant issue within the health service but that a lack of data makes it difficult to determine the true scale of it.
“Overall food waste from the NHS is likely to be much higher – and it is reported that the annual cost of hospital food waste is £230 million, which equates to 39% of the total food budget,” he said.
The NHS figures show the average food wasted by each trust that separated their waste in 2019-20 was 61 tonnes.
But there was enormous variation, with the lowest reported waste just 0.1 tonnes – at the North Cumbria Integrated Care Trust, which was formed by a merger half way through the year.
The highest recorded amount was at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, which clocked up a massive 404 tonnes alone.
That was followed by the South London and Maudsley Foundation Trust, with 241 tonnes, and the Frimley Health Foundation Trust in the Home Counties area, with 240 tonnes.
When measured per patient admitted, the worst offender was the Rotherham, Doncaster and South Humber Foundation Trust, with 53 kgs per person (0.05 tonnes) – although no admitted patient data was available for the South London and Maudsley Trust.
Food redistribution charity FareShare said millions of people in the UK struggle to get enough to eat and that feeding people is the most environmentally friendly thing to do with surplus food.
"As we’ve demonstrated throughout the pandemic, FareShare is ready at any time, to receive large scale offers of food, and through our networks of 30 regional centres and 11,000 charities across the UK, get it to people who need it most,” a spokesperson said.
In 2017-18, NHS Digital asked trusts to report the weight of all unserved meals over a week-long period, to measure the amount of food that went straight in the bin.
But the process was fraught with errors and the data unreliable, with some trusts multiplying their weekly figures by 52 to reach an annual figure, reporting the total weight three times – once each for breakfast, lunch and dinner – or reporting their trust-wide figure multiple times for every hospital site.
The audit also did not take account of food left uneaten on patients’ plates.
Sustainable food charity FeedBack said that several trusts had moved from in-house kitchens to outsourced services involving pre-plated frozen meals.
The charity speculated this could be behind the drop in surplus food last year, but cautioned that it must be measured against the carbon cost of transporting meals around the country from centralised depots.
Other campaigners argue that using poor-quality, mass-produced and reheated meals over freshly prepared food contributes to waste on patients’ plates, which the Soil Association says is not currently measured.
An independent review of hospital food in 2020 stated the NHS must lead by example on public health and nutrition by improving hospital meals, and recognised the role of coronavirus in highlighting the importance of good food for recovery and rehabilitation.
But the report said it did not matter whether food was produced on-site, in a central production unit or in a factory, only that it must “start with good fresh ingredients, and be prepared by well-trained chefs using traditional processes and minimal additives”.
Mr Percival said: “The recent Hospital Food Review recommended the NHS establish a common method of recording and monitoring food waste, with food waste minimisation plans and a package of supporting materials alongside a campaign to raise awareness.
“These recommendations resonate with the Soil Association’s Green Kitchen Standard, a framework which recognises caterers that are making positive steps to sustainably manage their energy, water and waste.
“Wider uptake of the Green Kitchen Standard would help to deliver the recommendation of the Hospital Food Review, and could help to minimise food waste across the NHS.”
NHS England was approached for comment.
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