Animal Aid

NIL BY MOUTH - Provision for veggies in hospital

Nil by Mouth details the findings of Animal Aid's survey into the provision of food for vegetarians and vegans in hospital. In this opening section of the report we summarise the findings and briefly introduce the background to the survey, particularly in the context of the 'Better Hospital Food scheme'.


Our survey found that:

  • Four years after the launch by the NHS of the Better Hospital Food scheme, hospital catering for vegetarians and vegans varied widely across the country.
  • There were examples of excellent provision for vegetarian patients but many respondents reported that the hospital they stayed in had no concept of what being veggie or vegan meant.*
  • One vegetarian told us that he was not allowed to have the veggie curry from the 'Ethnic Menu,' as it was for 'ethnics' only.
  • Although following a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet is scientifically proven to be healthy - reducing an individual's chances of suffering a stroke, heart attack or several forms of cancer - some vegetarians who replied to the survey were told by hospital staff that their diets were unhealthy and felt under intolerable pressure.
  • Two-thirds of vegans who responded to our survey said that provision was 'awful'. Some were treated with abusive negligence.
  • Vegans who had just given birth found it hard to get the food that they needed to recover and breast feed.

*A vegetarian diet contains no flesh, fish or fowl. A vegan diet excludes all egg and dairy products as well.

Introduction - the background

The provision for vegetarians and vegans in hospitals varies greatly from one institution to another. The worst have no conception of what being veggie or vegan means; serving ham sandwiches and fish pie to veggies and dairy cheese to vegans. The best provide a detailed menu indicating which dishes are suitable and specifying what ingredients are used.

This means that, for some, a stay in hospital can become a nightmare. Every day becomes a traumatic fight for food and they must choose whether to eat next to nothing, complain to the staff, or rely on friends and family to bring food in for them. For others, the variety and quality of food they receive is a delight. It seems that if you are vegetarian or vegan going into hospital, it is a matter of luck as to whether you are given inedible food, no appropriate food at all, or a veggie banquet!

The Better Hospital Food Scheme

This situation prevails, despite the fact that four years ago the NHS launched an initiative to improve the quality and availability of food served in hospitals, and ensure that a variety of dietary needs, including vegetarian and vegan, are catered for fully. It was called the Better Hospital Food scheme (BHF - see and was part of a larger set of strategies (the NHS Plan) that the NHS hoped would improve the state of Britain's health service and make it more in tune with the needs of patients.

One of the key BHF elements was that, for the first time, the NHS was to introduce a common standard of menu presentation and choice. This was supposed to ensure that patients knew what to expect when they went into hospital and would receive the same level of service no matter where they stayed.

A new NHS menu was designed by a group, led by Loyd Grossman, consisting of seven of Britain's leading chefs working alongside caterers, dieticians, nurses and patients.

More than 400 recipes were created and published in a new hospital recipe book, which included a CD-ROM demonstrating the layout of an ideal specimen menu. Both the recipe book and the menu included a selection of tasty, well-balanced, vegetarian dishes thanks to the involvement of the Vegetarian Society. On the specimen menu, the Society's logo is used to indicate the veggie dishes that they approved.

According to the NHS, this new menu should have meant that hospitals 'can accommodate a wide variety of special diets, including ethnic and religious diets, allergy-avoidance diets, "soft" or puréed diets, and diets chosen from personal preference such as vegetarian or vegan diets.'

Animal Aid conducted a survey to see whether hospitals nationwide were now providing a good variety of quality food for vegetarians and vegans. Our questionnaire was aimed at people who have been inpatients at some point during the last two years.

More than 300 non-meat eaters from around the country responded. We had asked them to describe their experiences of hospital catering as a vegetarian or vegan, to tell us how accessible appropriate food was and what the quality and variety was like. We also wanted to know if they felt under pressure at any time during their stay because of their chosen diet.

The results were mixed. Despite the launch of the BHF in 2000, the respondents reported that there is enormous variation in the quality of food around the country.

We also wrote to more than 350 hospitals, asking them to complete a questionnaire explaining how they accommodated these diets. Only 15 hospitals responded. Their feedback, although limited, confirmed what we had learned from the inpatients' questionnaires: provision was extremely mixed.

In the second section of Nil by Mouth, we report on the provision for vegetarians in hospitals, including how veggie dishes are marked on menus and the variety of veggie meals.

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