UNISONScotland www
This is our archive website that is no longer being updated.
For the new website please go to
Click here
Home News About us Join Us Contacts Help Resources Learning Links UNISON UK


The Future for Food in Scotland

The UNISON Scotland Response to the Scottish Government Discussion Paper ‘Choosing the Right Ingredients', The Future for Food in Scotland.

April 2008

Executive Summary

  • UNISON is Scotland's largest public service trade union representing over 162,000 members working largely in the public sector. Many of our members work in public sector catering or in areas such as the Meat Hygiene Service and environmental health.

  • UNISON welcomes plans to introduce a cross-cutting National Food Policy. It makes total sense to draw together a range of policy areas as they affect food, including climate change, sustainable development, health, education, transport etc., addressing issues such as public sector food procurement, food labelling, animal welfare and local sourcing of food.

  • Sustainability should be at the heart of food policy.

  • UNISON has long called for a ‘Food for Good' policy across the public sector, with the aim of providing quality healthy, sustainable food in nurseries and other early years settings, schools, hospitals, prisons, care homes etc.

  • UNISON Scotland has launched a new ‘Food for Good' Charter for the public sector. This covers: Sustainability, Health, Social Justice, Excellence and Skills.

  • Universal Free School Meals should be a major part of the Scottish Food Policy, but as a minimum, we need enabling legislation to allow pilots.

  • It is important to learn the lessons of what went wrong in public sector catering in the past, with policies of Compulsory Competitive Tendering, PFI, privatisation and outsourcing which cut pay and conditions for contracted-out staff and saw poor food quality and standards with great reliance on cook-chill and cook-freeze.

  • Scotland must retain an independent meat and poultry inspection service. Current job losses at the Meat Hygiene Service put quality at risk. Any further cuts, or privatisation or outsourcing could put public health at risk.

  • In the interests of health and sustainability, we need well-resourced quality public sector catering provided by directly employed staff with proper training and good employment conditions.


This paper constitutes UNISON Scotland's response to the Scottish Government Discussion Paper Choosing the Right Ingredients, The Future of Food in Scotland.

UNISON Scotland welcomes the opportunity to take part in this discussion.

UNISON is Scotland's largest public service trade union representing over 162,000 members working largely in the public sector in Scotland. Many of our members work in public sector catering, or in areas such as the Meat Hygiene Service and environmental health, engaged in providing nutritious food, improving /enforcing standards and educating people about healthy eating.

UNISON has long argued that food policy needs to be addressed in a cross cutting way, with a clear leadership role for the public sector both as a provider of food in schools, hospitals, prisons etc., and in its roles as a purchaser, in awareness-raising and in setting standards.

In 2003 UNISON Scotland launched a major ‘Food for Good' Charter for NHS catering services including: food quality, fair trade, recycling, animal welfare, staff training and employment conditions.

More recently we proposed expanding this across all of the public sector, embracing local and global social justice factors. That concept is the focus in this submission.

A Scottish Food Policy and the public sector

We welcome the Scottish Government's decision to adopt a national food policy and agree that a holistic, joined-up approach is required, given the range of areas that food policy links into. These include climate change, health, education, transport etc., addressing issues such as: tackling obesity, public sector food procurement, food labelling, welfare, access to healthy food and local sourcing of supplies, including organic.

The Discussion Paper acknowledges the potential role of the public sector in being a market for food in Scotland that is worth about £85m. There are substantial health and environmental benefits related to improving the quality and sustainability of food purchased by and provided by the sector in nursery settings, schools, hospitals, prisons, care homes etc. These have been shown by the success of the pioneering Hungry for Success initiative in schools.

We are pleased that the Sustainable Development Commission Scotland recommends, in its response to the Food discussion, that the schools work "should be taken forward to build a sustainable food culture by linking public procurement in schools, hospitals and prisons with ecological food production".

‘Food for Good' across the public sector

Our 10-point ‘Food for Good Charter' in 2003 addressed the fact that diet and food production had become major social, ethical and environmental issues and that the NHS should be a "beacon of good practice".

It covered: organic food, animal welfare, meat quality, fair trade, 5 portions a day, recycling/composting, patients not profit, resources, real food and fair pay.

UNISON Scotland's Revitalising Our Public Services campaigning has five principles - Democracy, Investment, Fairness, Excellence and Partnership. We believe these could be applied to a National Food Policy.

We have updated our ‘Food for Good' policy for 2008 and beyond to cover the entire public sector, with a five point Charter, encompassing areas that of course do have some overlap: Sustainability, Health, Social Justice, Excellence and Skills.

The Charter - for Scotland's public sector

1. Sustainability

Food should be fresh, prepared locally and sourced locally where possible.

Mains-fed water coolers should be provided, minimising the use of bottled water.

Public bodies should produce annual reports giving clear ‘global footprint' type information on all aspects of their food use, including e.g. % of fresh, local food, progress on waste minimisation and recycling etc.

2. Health

Universal free school meals should be recognised and adopted as a major contributor to improving health and tackling childhood obesity.

The aim for all public sector catering should be to give a daily option of an organic/ethically produced main meal, ideally locally sourced.

Vending machines on school/hospital premises should be used for healthy alternatives, not junk/fast food.

3. Social Justice

Fair trade food should be used where possible, with targets of 50% by 2010 where relevant fair trade products are available.

Decisions about menu options should give consideration to providing less meat-intensive diets, with more fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables and sustainable fish.

Animal welfare must be prioritised, with an aim for animal produce of using only recognised farm assured schemes or organic schemes by 2015.

4. Excellence

All food must meet quality nutritional standards, monitored by relevant regulators. This involves excellence in procurement and in staff training and conditions.

The top priority must be the contribution of food to health and wellbeing, with recognition of the folly of previous policies that pursued Compulsory Competitive Tendering, privatisation, PFI and outsourcing - cutting standards and employment conditions, increasing the use of cook-chill and cook-freeze food, and allowing ‘fast' and junk food in schools and hospitals.

The public must have access to clear relevant information about food, including via labelling and annual reports.

5. Skills

Quality training and proper pay and employment conditions for the sector, including training in environmental factors as part of ‘green workplaces'.

Lessons for young people in primary and secondary schools about the food chain, sustainability and preparation of healthy meals.

Public awareness campaigns on healthy diets, tied in with support to local food co-operatives and similar initiatives to improve access to quality food for the most vulnerable.

These principles in practice

UNISON Scotland commends these principles to the Scottish Government. In the interests of health and sustainability, we need well resourced catering provided by directly employed staff with proper training and good employment conditions

There are a number of examples of food initiatives that demonstrate how such principles can be put into practise very successfully. East Ayrshire Council radically improved school meal menus with organic food, reduced fat, sugar and salt, fresh and unprocessed ingredients and no colourings, artificial flavourings or GM foods. The sustainable school meals initiative attracted the attention of the Soil Association and the council adopted their Food for Life scheme. The council used contract specifications to encourage small local suppliers and reduced the average distance travelled per menu item from 330 miles to 99 miles. There was a slight cost increase overall, but a Scottish Executive evaluation in 2006 said that: "…ingredient and administration costs have gone up modestly, though they remain within the range that many Local Authorities are already paying. This allays to some extent the fear that increased costs would mean local supply is not viable." Cost, of course, should not be the only factor and the council's foresight may well have made a major impact on child health simply by cutting out colourings and artificial flavourings, given that the Food Standards Agency wants six artificial colourings banned due to links with hyperactivity. Several Scottish councils are looking at following East Ayrshire's lead in their own schools.

In Wales the Assembly Government has ordered the removal of junk food from NHS vending machines, as part of efforts to tackle obesity and diet-related ill health. In Renfrewshire the local council has taken steps to use licensing restrictions to stop burger bars and ice cream vans operating near schools. The move is supported by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, which also supports a new curriculum pack in Glasgow for teaching primary school children about the importance of diet, nutrition and exercise.

The importance of these principles for Food Policy

Climate Change, Food and Sustainability

The threat to the world from climate change is serious and the action required is urgent. The proposed Scottish Climate Change Bill will see Scotland aiming to be a world leader in public policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In this context it is clear that sustainability should be at the heart of food policy, with a local and global outlook, incorporating health promotion and social justice. UNISON Scotland has suggested the Scottish Climate Change Bill should place a duty on public bodies to consider the impact of all their decisions on climate change and to report annually. Such reporting should incorporate relevant information about their food use, food waste etc. Negotiated green workplace agreements should also include food factors and there should be training for staff involved in implementing ‘green' food policies.

The goal of sustainable development is to enable all people throughout the world to satisfy their basic needs and enjoy a better quality of life without compromising the quality of life of future generations.

A Scottish Food Policy has to have an international element addressing climate change, fair trade, and the major impact of rising energy, fuel and food prices on the most vulnerable in society, here and across the world. Buying fair trade products guarantees a fair deal for workers in developing countries. Public sector bodies need strengthened public procurement guidance and support on how they can specify the use of fair trade products, and other relevant specifications, when putting contracts out to tender. It is important to encourage diversity and sustainable, fair, local trading relationships and to avoid local, small suppliers being driven under by the ‘might' of the supermarket chains.

The policy also has to adopt a long-term approach, something politicians do not do often enough, recognising that taking action now, will improve quality of life in the future, rather than passing on problems to future generations. (E.g. investing in free healthy school meals, or in greater use of public transport by the food industry). The future cost benefits are apparent (e.g. in healthier adults in the future, with reduced costs to the NHS, or because - as the Stern report argued - acting sooner rather than later on climate change will keep the costs of tackling it down). However, the benefits to society of such a policy will be measured in a great deal more than just the future financial savings. Health and quality of life provide less immediate measures, but are far more valuable to us all. Improved nutrition in food for elderly people, for example, can make a significant contribution to their mental and physical wellbeing.

As well as the international and long-term focus, the policy will need to look at every part of the food supply chain, to establish the ‘global footprint' of products using agreed standards/measurements and to ensure proper labeling to allow consumers and purchasers (from small businesses to large hospitals) to make choices and assessments in buying healthy, sustainable food. These will include where food comes from, how ‘green' the production process has been and will take into account options many people want such as organic, free range, vegan or GM free. It will also include looking at the ingredients within food products, so as to, for example, avoid palm oil that has been grown on cleared rainforests.

Various factors affect decision-making on whether food products can be classed as sustainable or organic. The recent global food price increases are a severe threat to life for many in developing countries and have highlighted problems with biofuels policies, while debate has also raged around air miles and whether food flown thousands of miles from overseas can legitimately be labeled as organic, with some suggesting that potentially the carbon footprint of its production might be considerably lower than some food produced here or in nearby countries. It is clear that the policy will need to look at these various issues and take decisions based on best practice and/or ‘gold standard' type certifications. UNISON Scotland and Stop Climate Change Scotland has proposed that the Scottish Government should be advised by an independent Scottish Climate Change Committee, which would use the best and most up-to-date scientific and other advice. This should include food sector issues, where required, and the National Food Policy should be updated in accordance with relevant advice.

Other important areas for the policy to look at include: reducing food waste - currently Scots consumers throw away £800 million worth of food annually, then there is food packaging waste too; making a switch away from bottled water, which damages the environment both with plastic bottles and in the transport required. Mains-fed water coolers in workplaces would make a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions. The Scottish Government has already announced that it is to use mains water for hospitality events.

As well as looking at the international impact of food through buying fair trade products, the food policy should consider health and sustainability advice on dietary choices. Sustainable Development Commission Scotland, in its response to the Food discussion, recommends on sustainability that procurement priorities should make sustainable consumption visible to the public "e.g. a clear shift in public sector catering towards an emphasis on less meat-intensive diets maximising the use of fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables and promoting more sustainable fish species." UNISON believes that animal welfare should also be prioritised by the public sector, which should seek to avoid importing food from intensive rearing systems abroad that would fall short of UK standards, e.g. in chicken and egg products. Animal produce should ideally be sourced from organic schemes or from recognised farm assured schemes (e.g. the RSPSCA Freedom Food Scheme or Quality Meat Scotland schemes), with the aim of sourcing 100% of it this way by 2015.

Health and Excellence

As part of Scotland's efforts to tackle both obesity and other health issues and its prioritising of action on climate change, we believe that the universal provision of free school meals could be a major part of the new National Food Policy. However, if Ministers do not support this, we would suggest that, as a minimum, councils should be given enabling powers to set up innovative pilot schemes, as proposed by UNISON in submissions prior to the passing of the Schools (Health Promotion and Nutrition) (Scotland) Act 2007. These could build on school meals work done in Hull, for example, and would, in our view, provide strong support for universal provision.

The benefits to patients, staff and visitors of having hospitals provide much healthier food will be enormous and similar benefits will apply in nurseries, prisons and care homes. All public sector catering should meet quality nutritional standards, monitored by relevant regulators and updated where appropriate in line with the best evidence-based medical and scientific advice.

Quality food provision will never be possible without a properly resourced and trained and well-paid workforce. Many catering staff in Scotland, poorly paid to start with and mainly female, were treated appallingly during various privatisation processes. While it is excellent that many contracts have come back in-house, it is important that the Scottish Food Policy addresses issues around training, pay and employment conditions and opposes any further privatisation, whether through PFI/PPP or other outsourcing routes. A number of PFI contracts include catering services. UNISON believes that these should be reviewed to see how new standards in the food policy can best be provided. We would like to see in-house bids for these contracts when they come up for benchmarking.

Real food, freshly produced and locally sourced where possible, should be standard, in preference to cook-chill and cook-freeze meals. We would want the public sector purchasers of food to also engage with suppliers about how to reduce the use of pesticides, steroids, antibiotics and additives. GM products should be avoided while there are concerns about health risks. The use of vending machines selling fizzy drinks, crisps and chocolate etc. in schools and hospitals obviously flies in the face of healthy eating advice and awareness campaigns by government and other organisations. These should be removed or stocked with alternative healthy food and drinks.

All these issues are relevant to food policy in terms both of having well trained and educated staff, on good conditions, and over food standards, including freshness, sustainability and nutritional quality. We need to ensure schools have suitable dining areas, kitchens and equipment to allow staff to cook fresh produce on site and serve it in a positive dining environment. Proper facilities for cooking should be the norm across the public sector. If PFI/PPP schemes do not allow for this, intervention is needed. The 2005 Turning the Tables - Transforming School Meals report for the Department of Education and Skills south of the border warned that: "The existence of long-term contracts cannot be allowed to adversely affect the health of pupils in PFI schools."

Another policy area that needs to be reviewed is ‘shared services', as much of this looks at centralised purchasing. This would favour using large UK-wide bulk suppliers rather than local firms. As UNISON's Scottish Secretary Matt Smith told a Trade Union week meeting in the Scottish Parliament in January 2008: "At a time that Government is advocating sourcing supplies like food locally, to move to fewer, large suppliers, delivering across the UK runs counter to attempts to decrease the delivery mileage and assist in tackling climate change."

Meat Hygiene Service

UNISON is greatly concerned at present at the threat to the Meat Hygiene Service from job losses and possible privatisation. More than 70 jobs UK-wide are being cut, with more to come, and disparities in pension packages for some of those affected. UNISON opposes these cuts and any compulsory redundancies and has warned the Scottish and UK governments that there could be a risk to public health if the service is not maintained as an independent public sector body with sufficient staffing to carry out a quality inspection service. UNISON fears that the options being considered by the MHS and the Food Standards Agency (MHS is an Executive Agency of the FSA) point to privatisation, outsourcing or inspection by the producers themselves. We would question any moves to effectively dismantle Scotland's independent meat inspection. We want the Scottish Government to step back from the UK MHS/FSA proposals and to retain a high quality, committed meat and poultry inspection public service.


If the public wants a high quality service, the staff involved deserve to be properly rewarded, with excellent training, pay and conditions. The Food Policy should make a clear commitment to employment conditions.

We believe that the public sector can lead by example on climate change generally and on food policy in particular. The National Food Policy can create the framework for these ‘Food for Good' principles, which we believe would have wide public support on top of all the long-term benefits for health and the environment.

Top of page

For Further Information Please Contact:

Matt Smith, Scottish Secretary
14, West Campbell Street,
Glasgow G2 6RX

Tel 0845 355 0845 Fax 0141 342 2835

e-mail matt.smith@unison.co.uk

Top of page

Submissions index | Home