It is one of the basic rules of the kitchen:
never store raw food above food that is ready to eat. So to find that this rule has been broken by the NHS is surprising. To find that the breach was just one of several in two of Glasgow's major hospitals is even more surprising, and worrying.
The breaches happened at the Victoria Infirmary and Gartnavel Royal Hospital and were uncovered during the regular inspections conducted by the Food Standards Agency. The mistake with the raw food happened at the Victoria, where it was also discovered that refrigerator temperatures were above acceptable levels for several days. There were also some concerns about open pasta, and there was food that was past its use-by date. The problem at Gartnavel was inadequate ventilation in the ward kitchens.
These mistakes should not have been allowed to happen, although there is some context required. First, the fact that the problems were discovered demonstrates that, although there are limits to what it can uncover, the inspection system appears to be working reasonably well.
Secondly, although the Victoria and Gartnavel ran into trouble in the recent inspections, the good news is the Western Infirmary, the Southern General, Stobhill Hospital and the Glasgow Royal Infirmary all passed their most recent hygiene inspections. This is positive and evidence that the food management and monitoring systems in these hospitals are, on the whole, fit for purpose.
Third, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has made it clear the two hospitals criticised by the FSA have moved quickly to rectify the problems that were identified. Where necessary, staff have been reminded of the correct procedures and the health board insists both hospitals are working with the FSA to ensure they pass their inspections next time.
To its credit, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has also been investing £10m in the kitchens that serve its hospitals. It is also important the slip-ups in food hygiene at Gartnavel and the Victoria, while worrying, do not distract from a much more critical issue: the quality of the food itself.
As The Herald highlighted a few weeks ago while our columnist Anne Johnstone was being treated at the Beatson in Glasgow, hospital food sometimes fails to meet expectations. At precisely the time when food should be at its best, it is stodgy and lacking in nutrition. Patients, particularly the frail and elderly, are sometimes being let down and not given the food and drink they need.
Part of the explanation for this is undoubtedly that the NHS's resources are tight, and staff are dealing with heavy workloads. This may also partly explain why the mistakes crept in to the Victoria and Gartnavel.
Whatever the explanation, the FSA's findings should serve as a reminder to hospitals that the duty of care to their patients extends from the wards into the kitchens. More hospitals in Glasgow passed their inspections than failed them, but for all of them, the provision of nutritious food, in a safe and hygienic environment, must always be a priority.
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