Food procurement

According to 2010 government estimates the public sector spent about £2.4 billion annually (PDF) procuring food and catering services, which represented approximately 5.5% of UK food service sector sales. Of the total spend, 29% was in schools, 29% in further and higher education settings, 25% in hospitals and care homes, 11% in the armed forces, 5% in prisons, and 1% in government offices.  

Government buying standards for food

The Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF) sets out standards for public sector organisations to apply when procuring food and catering services. These standards relate to food production, processing and distribution, nutrition, resource efficiency, and socio-economic considerations. Some of the standards are mandatory, and some are best practice. For example, a mandatory nutrition standard is that savoury snacks are only provided in packet sizes of 35g or less, whereas best practice would be 30g or less.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is responsible for updating public sector food procurement standards. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) is responsible for the nutrition standards in the GBSF.

Currently use of the GBSF is mandatory for catering in government buildings, the NHS hospitals, the armed forces and prisons. The wider public sector is encouraged, but not mandated, to comply with the standards. The GBSF is referenced by the School Food Standards for England.

In 2021, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee published a report on public sector procurement of food. The committee’s recommendations included that the GBSF should be updated in relation to nutrition, animal welfare, sustainability and local food procurement. The committee also called for the GBSF to be mandatory across the public sector.

In summer 2022, Defra held a consultation on possible changes to public sector food and catering policy, including updating the GBSF. Defra explained that public sector food procurement had been featured in Henry Dimbleby’s independent National Food Strategy Report as well as the EFRA Committee inquiry, and that recommendations from both reports were being considered. These included: 

  • updating the buying standards to ensure procurement of healthy, sustainable food
  • making the standards mandatory across the entire public sector
  • improving and monitoring compliance with the standards
  • opening up supply chains to a wider range of businesses.

 The government response to this consultation is expected “later in 2023”.

Nutrition standards

The GBSF sets out mandatory and best practice standards for nutrition. These are intended to reduce the intake of salt, sugar and saturated fat, and to increase consumption of fruit, vegetables, fish and fibre. They also include voluntary best practice nutrition standards that cover availability and portion size of soft drinks, confectionery, savoury snacks, calorie or allergen labelling and menu analysis.

According to the government, “these standards aim to ensure that public food procurement is underpinned by evidence-based dietary recommendations so that the public sector can lead by example ensuring a healthy food environment for those who live and work in it”.

In 2019, the government consulted on updating the nutrition standards in the GBSF to reflect the latest scientific advice. This followed a commitment in the government’s 2018 Childhood obesity: a plan for action.

Following the 2019 consultation, the government said it would make the following changes to the nutrition standards:

  • update the reducing salt mandatory and voluntary nutrition standards to reflect government’s 2017 salt targets as referenced in the consultation document, and any subsequent revisions as set out in the recently published 2024 targets
  • update the meal deals mandatory nutrition standard to ensure food and drinks used within meal deals meet the healthier options in the GBSF standards update the reducing saturated fat mandatory nutrition standard to include pre-packed sandwiches and other pre-packed meals
  • update the increasing fibre voluntary best practice nutrition standard, to ensure main meals containing beans or pulses (or both) as a main source of protein are made available at least once a week
  • retain the best practice nutrition standard requirement for menus (for food and beverages).

The updated nutrition standards were published in August 2021 with supporting technical guidance.

Buying food locally

Both the Government and the opposition parties support increasing the role of local food suppliers through procurement, as recommended by the National Food Strategy Report (2021). Several proposals for local buying quotas were debated during the scrutiny of the Procurement Bill 2022-23 [HL]. Whereas setting national level quotas would generally breach the UK’s international obligations, procurement rules allow reserving lower value contracts for small and local suppliers. For details see:

The voluntary industry programme for sugar, salt and calorie reduction

The government has encouraged food manufacturers to sign up to a voluntary programme to facilitate the gradual lowering of sugar, salt and calories in everyday foods. The aim is to stimulate the production of healthier products, improving health without consumers needing to make dietary changes.

The sugar reformulation programme challenged industry to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020. The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) reviewed progress in 2022 and found that the 20% overall reduction target was not achieved, though there were reductions in some food categories.

The salt reduction programme challenges all sectors of the food industry to reduce the salt content in foods across over 100 food groups that contribute most to people’s salt intakes. In 2018, Public Health England (PHE) published its first detailed assessment of salt levels in food against earlier reformulation targets (PDF). It found that just over half of average salt reduction targets had been met and that there had been a reduction in average population salt intake of 11% between 2005 and 2014. The current targets, introduced in 2020, set reduction targets for 84 food groups that contribute most to salt intake, to be achieved by 2024.

The calorie reduction programme challenges retailers and manufacturers to reduce calories by up to 10%, and the eating out of home, takeaway and delivery sector to reduce calories by up to 20%, by 2024. No progress reports have been published on the calorie reduction programme.

Further information on the government’s sugar, salt and calorie reduction programmes is available:

Background: procurement reform

Government procurement rules are going to change, with the Procurement Act 2023 expected to come fully into force in October 2024.

The objective of the Government’s efforts to reform procurement is to create a simpler, faster, more flexible and transparent public procurement regime, and to open the market for public contracts to new entrants, including small and local businesses.

A Procurement Bill started its passage through Parliament in April 2022. In October 2023, it received Royal Assent as the Procurement Act 2023. The Act is expected to enter fully into force by October 2024 and will replace the current EU-law based regime. Procurement is devolved; while Wales and Northern Ireland will apply the Procurement Act 2023 fully, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own procurement policies.

Further background on the reform, the Procurement Bill, its passage through Parliament and relevant amendments are summarised in Commons Library research briefings:

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