Campaigners have warned that new Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidelines on care home food are not worth the paper they are written on. They believe mandatory regulation rather than guidance is the only way to ensure nutritional standards are applied consistently across the UK.
Derek Johnson, vice-chair of the National Association of Care Caterers (NACC), said: "What we want are binding requirements. When all you've got is guidance it all comes down to individual interpretation."
Liberal Democrat MP and care home campaigner Paul Burstow agreed. "These standards must be more than guidance if they are to have any impact," he said.
Last Friday's 18-page FSA document, entitled Food Served to People in Residential Care, included an analysis of the daily nutritional requirements for people in care homes and advice on how to source food for elderly people.
An FSA spokeswoman said it was not the role of the group to lay down rules but to "provide advice to help the needs of older people to be met".
But Burstow questioned even its potential regulatory use because it doesn't cover residents with special dietary needs. "Even if they become a requirement they will be of little use if residents are not able to eat the food," he said.
Johnson hopes a 168-page NACC manual released this week, covering eating difficulties, malnutrition and special diets, will help. Together with the FSA guidance, he wants it to be cross-referenced with a Department of Health (DoH) report in December.
The DoH's Commission For Social Care Inspection (CSCI) body may toughen up regulations that currently state food should be "wholesome and nutritious". "We need better joined-up thinking and the CSCI document needs to have teeth," Johnson said.
By Tom Bill