Nicola Sturgeon’s 2016 programme for government pledged to make Scotland a ‘Good Food Nation’. After over two years of silence, and criticism over a lack of progress, the bill's consultation was finally published in late December 2018 and closed at the end of March. The consultation results are not yet known but one thing should be obvious. A Good Food Nation cannot serve school meals which include chemicals linked to cancer.

A Herald on Sunday investigation recently found that three-quarters of Scotland’s councils have school menus that include processed meats which contain nitrites. That is only possible because the nutritional standards set by the Scottish Government allows it. That’s why, when presented with the newspaper's findings, local government body Cosla responded that councils “adhere closely” to national nutritional standards.

In the coming weeks Scotland’s schools will break for summer. When children return in August nitrites should be disappearing off the school menus across the country.

Herald on Sunday campaign: time to dump "nitro" meat from schools and hospitals

This doesn’t require legislative change. Nicola Sturgeon and her Deputy John Swinney should get their skates on, adjust the national nutritional standards and ban cancer-linked chemicals from Scotland’s school canteens. Should they do so they will have the full support of the Scottish Labour Party.


However, so far they have failed to show any leadership on the issue. In the absence of national action it will be down to individual councils like the one I lead to make the right decision for our own school pupils.

North Ayrshire Council already exceeds the Scottish Government’s nutritional standards. We have been reducing ham, bacon and cured meats in our school menus by introducing meat-free days. All our Primary Schools have "Gold Food for Life" accreditation. We are sourcing more organic produce and using more local suppliers. However, when The Herald on Sunday asked whether our menu was completely nitrite-free the council’s answer was no.

So over the summer our school menus will be reviewed with input from local pupils. Cured products will be off the menu, red processed meats will be reduced and we will be working to source nitrite-free products across the full menu.

Guillaume Coudray: removing nitro-meat from schools and hospitals is "urgent"

That’s a decision we will make of our own accord. It reflects our values as a council which has pioneered school holiday meal provision over many years and whose work around dignified access to food has resulted in £150,000 of funding being awarded in recent weeks to projects led by the North Ayrshire Foodbank and the Three Towns Growers allotment group.

The reality, however, is that cash-strapped councils will be left to make their own decisions. The SNP’s failure to offer an alternative to Tory austerity and instead dump cuts on to local government means that councils, including SNP-led authorities, are struggling to maintain even basic services. When councils are fighting just to keep teachers in front of pupils is it any wonder that three-quarters are not exceeding national nutritional standards and banning nitrites from school menus?

This is a national public health issue. It requires national leadership and it needs a government that genuinely works in partnership with councils to make the best decisions for Scotland’s young people, not one that starves councils of resources to a level where cancer-linked chemicals become an acceptable part of school meals.

Councillor Joe Cullinane is the Labour leader of North Ayrshire Council