Public Sector Procurement of Food Contents


With an annual spend of around £2 billion, public procurement of food and catering services represents a significant lever for the Government to drive its agenda on food production standards, animal welfare, sustainability and support for domestic producers. We were surprised and disappointed to find that this lever has not been used more effectively. The Government must lead by example in setting high standards for food procurement.

Defra’s 2014 Plan for Public Procurement contained commendable ambitions and launched updated standards through a new balanced scorecard, but these were not matched by a similar, longer-term effort on delivery. Instead, food procurement standards, even where compulsory, have been poorly monitored and enforced. It is therefore difficult to evaluate how successful they have been. The Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering (GBSF) should be compulsory across the public sector in England, and the Government should review whether the balanced scorecard should be made similarly mandatory too.

In some areas, such as animal welfare and climate, the GBSF need updating to reflect that consumer preferences and political priorities have changed. The Government intends to publish a White Paper in response to the National Food Strategy. The Government should set out a plan to update the GBSF, and the nutrition standards it consulted on in 2019, as part of this White Paper, by the end of this year.

The exemptions to meeting UK legislative standards on food production and animal welfare in the GBSF should be removed. As well as sending the wrong message about the importance of such standards, it is inappropriate for the Government to advocate high food production standards for imports in future trade deals when any part of our public sector is exempt. The loophole, even if rarely used, must be closed.

Being part of the EU was not as significant a barrier to supporting British producers as was frequently implied. For many years, the Government simply did not make enough effort to support greater public sector market access for domestic suppliers. We are hopeful that the tide is now turning. In particular, the Future Food Framework must not be further delayed, as it will provide valuable lessons in how to support local, smaller suppliers while ensuring value for money in public procurement.

Published: 21 April 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement