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INSIDE TRACK: The carrot-and-stick drive for better NHS meals

The flurry of interest following the Scottish government's launch of a MasterChef-type competition to drive up the standard of food served in NHS hospitals across Scotland showed that the subject is something of a culinary hot potato.

Unlike the school meals campaign, no Scots chef has yet come forward to offer his or her services as menu mentor as far as I'm aware; and frankly I don't blame them. Catering for such a large and diverse patient demographic across 14 NHS health boards represents a logistical headache, and one that could easily mop up all of chef's time while diverting attention away from the serious matter in hand. Matching the specific dietary needs of patients across all age groups and a vast range of illnesses, diseases and recuperation times is hardly the same as devising a Michelin-star menu.

Nor do I think it absolutely necessary to have a well-known culinary figurehead leading the challenge, which begins with a series of regional heats during the summer. Encouraging hospital catering teams to come together in competition to develop new healthy patient menus sounds like a much better idea, for it means there's the opportunity for lasting change - not to mention local heroes - to come from the inside. After all, it's they who work closest with patients.

Previous attempts by celebrity chefs at improving menus in hospitals south of the Border haven't been successful. After a high-profile campaign, the TV chef James Martin has only managed to get some of his soup recipes adopted by NHS Wales.

Unlike England, Scotland has hospital nutritional guidelines, launched by the government in 2008. Performance is monitored by six-monthly audits and there is a new nutrition database where recipes can be shared across all health boards. We have protected mealtimes, mandatory malnutrition screening of patients when they're admitted to hospital, and nutrition champions in every NHS Board.

The Soil Association's Food For Life catering mark, a certification scheme designed to guarantee that food served in public places is fresh, seasonal and sustainable, has been taken up by five hospital boards in England; in Scotland the scheme has been very successful in local authority schools and sporting venues, with 13 million certified meals being served each year. Now Soil Association Scotland is turning its focus to hospitals. NHS Lothian is on board; Dumfries & Galloway and Ayrshire & Arran won't be far behind, established procurement contracts notwithstanding.

Even with these progressive initiatives, huge challenges remain - not least of which is how best to physically deliver bespoke meals to individual patients.

The NHS MasterChef competition is aimed at those hospitals that can make and deliver meals. The issue of food cooked in "superkitchens" then blast-chilled, transported and reheated in hospitals that don't have proper facilities is another matter, and one that will be highlighted by the competition. Given this added factor, it would be fun if a well-known chef or chefs were to do the judging. Since the winning menu is to be rolled out across NHS Scotland, their presence might prove just enough of a carrot.

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