NHS packaging: Open for business

06/10/2017 - 12:21
Healthcare catering operators, NHS buyers and suppliers are being urged to use their influence to help make food and drink packs easier to open. David Foad reports.

A coalition of caterers, NHS staff, dietitians, suppliers, academics and patients is encouraging the catering industry to get behind moves to make single-portion food and drink packs easier to open.

The Packaging Taskforce, instigated by the Hospital Caterers Association (HCA) in 2014, met recently at Reading University to review progress on the issue and was informed that a new standard – ISO 17480 – had been officially recognised and that testing against it was already underway.

Describing the issues faced, Dr Alaster Yoxall from Sheffield Hallam University, who was the UK’s technical expert in the development of ISO 17480 and works for Design Futures, the commercial packaging design consultancy based at the Sheffield university, said: “We might think the problem is trivial, but 63% of the 73 million single-portion packaging purchased is unopenable – that’s 44 million items.

“If it takes on average 20 seconds to help someone open each of these items, it would take about 250,000 work hours or 11,000 work days for the whole 44 million.

“As well as the economic cost, packaging that’s difficult to open can also mean patient dissatisfaction and lead to poor nutrition.”

He said that testing was already being carried out to ISO 17480, the international standard on accessible design and easy opening for packaging.

“Premier [Ambrosia pots], Good Food Chain [sandwiches], Juice Works [juices, jellies] and Unilever [Flora, Marmite] all have products that have passed.

“We now have a process that exists to test and pass products, so let’s use it.”

Andy Jones, a Packaging Taskforce panel member and chair of the PS100 Group, added: “Food is part of the patient care plan – it’s about food quality and meal enjoyment, and it’s of no nutritional value if it’s not eaten.

“NHS England wants more of this. We need to make things simpler for people to open. It is a push-pull. The culture has to change.

“The products are starting to come through, but we now need supply partners, nurses, dietitians to help us effect real change.”

Caroline Lecko, another task force member and the clinical improvement manager with NHS Improvement, said: “I would suggest that our catering colleagues look at the amount of single-portion products left uneaten and don’t automatically make the assumption that products were not eaten because the patient was not hungry.

“This will involve talking to patients to understand why something has been left, and from this I feel it is possible to have some understanding of the issue within your hospital.

“It will give you insight into how this issue is contributing to malnutrition, the patient experience and the costs you incur. This, of course, links very much with the Lord Carter report into efficiency in the NHS.”

Dr Yoxall said caterers and suppliers needed to identify the packs they place into the supply chain, get them tested, and once they have a certificate to say it has passed to communicate that to the NHS.

“Where a pack fails, the supplier should work with the test organisation and others to work out why it did and how it could be improved,” he said. “Caterers need to look for alternative packs that have passed, and this information can be found from the NHS or via the HCA website.

"More broadly, caterers and suppliers should liaise with the taskforce to help develop best practice.

“I believe that getting to a place where we produce high-quality, engaging, single-portion packaging will be an iterative process.”

Jones added: “For me it is about suppliers understanding why packaging is so important. It’s about ensuring that the products we use can actually be opened by people in health and social care settings.

“You can have the most nutritious, tasty, flavoursome products, but if people can’t actually get into them, what’s the point? We are just adding to waste.

Jones said that caterers can respond by looking at their menus to ensure what they are offering is easy to open.

“Where they have issues they must ensure that the product specifications they issue are robust and include testing against the new ISO,” he continued.

“And they have to work with partner suppliers to make the changes needed.

“I got involved in the packaging issue because I wanted people to know we were listening and responding.

“You just need to think about how you, as a caterer, feel if we cannot open something and how we moan.

He concluded: “We now have an opportunity not to be that person who moans, but the person who leads change and drives innovation with suppliers.”

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