Hospital food will suffer following the Government's decision to scrap the Better Hospital Food (BHF) programme, according to leading industry figures.
The demise of the programme has led to fears that the profile and the quality of hospital meals will drop as individual NHS trusts take over responsibility for food standards.
Alison McCree, chairman of the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA), said she was "surprised and disappointed" at the decision.
"BHF targets were reported into the Department of Health and had an impact on hospital star ratings. The decision to end the programme will take away any incentive to improve," she said.
Chef Shaun Hill, who left the programme in 2002 after questioning the Government's commitment to the plan, was equally damning. "It's a disturbing sign and shows that it was maybe little more than a Government stunt. It's the food that needs to be improved not the administration," he said.
Martin Cantor, trust catering manager at the Heart of England NHS Trust, agreed it was bad news for hospital food. "It will fragment the service because quality will depend on how much of a priority food is in each region."
In a letter to BHF panel members, the Department of Health said: "The programme was an excellent example of how a national approach can support local improvements. But central initiatives can only go so far."
The BHF project was kick-started in 2001 with a payment of £40m but the Government said cash would no longer be ring-fenced for hospital food.
By Tom Bill