Figures released to the Irish Examiner show hospitals are spending less on basic food items in a bid to slash costs.
The figures released under Freedom of Information show:
* Hospital catering spend has been cut by a 20% since the height of the boom, falling from €30.5m in 2008 to €24m last year.
* The average daily hospital spend on food per patient, based on bed days and not individual hospitals, fell from €8.10 (€2.71 per meal) to just €7.01 (€2.33 per meal).
* The lowest individual hospital spend last year — €2.03 per meal — was at Waterford Regional Hospital, just below St James’s (€2.10), Tallaght (€2.15), the Rotunda (€2.33) and Mallow General (€2.77).
* Average meals last year at 33 of the 45 hospitals which provided figures cost less than a €3.90 McDonald’s Happy Meal.
* There is a significant discrepancy between spending rates at different facilities which have comparable patient catchment levels.
Just five hospitals spent more on patient food last year than in 2008, with the largest cuts including Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital Drogheda (€4.38 per meal to €3.05), the Mater (€3.76 to €2.54) and St Columcille’s in Dublin City (€4.56 to €2.72).
Worryingly, the actual amount spent on food may be even lower than suggested. Due to the way the expenditure is compiled, a senior HSE FoI officer said the catering costs also include “a number of other [non-salary] items” such as purchasing related equipment and bringing food to the facilities.
However, even if the above rates are taken at face value, doctors and nutritionists claim the falling spend on food mean hospitals risk failing to give patients the dietary support they need.
“It’s difficult to say what the meals would comprise of, but when budgets are constrained evidence shows fat and salt content goes up,” said DIT lecturer and Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute expert Dr Dan McCartney.
The queries on cut-price food were kick-started when St James’s Hospital-based Dr Anthony O’Connor told the Irish Examiner of nutritional concerns over the standard of hospital food across the system in April.
Reacting to the figures, the HSE said while a “cost-saving exercise” is in place, hospitals are still asked to achieve “the highest standards in what we buy, but also the best value in how we buy our catering supplies”.