How much is a matter of taste?

The issue of the Compass Group's frozen hospital meals has heated up again.

Southern District Health Board chief executive Carole Heatly last week admitted "there clearly is an issue with the food'' and Compass agreed to introduce two meal monitors to improve the company's responsiveness.

Multinational provider the Compass Group was last year awarded the 15-year contract to provide the food for Southern District Health Board hospitals, staff cafeterias and Meals on Wheels.

It is part of a multimillion-dollar cost-cutting centralising initiative, and the meals have been adopted by at least seven of the country's 20 DHBs.

The Southern dissatisfaction seems to be predominantly in Dunedin, rather than Invercargill.

Indeed, there has been a steady stream of letters, articles and anecdotal evidence about the poor quality of the Dunedin food.

Hospital patients have apparently resorted to buying food from the main private cafe in the hospital or eating meals provided by friends and relatives.

It seems staff in the Dunedin and Wakari hospital cafeterias are also withholding their custom, possibly resulting in reduced profit and contributing to a staff redundancy.

And in February this newspaper revealed a quarter of the 200-or-so Meals on Wheels recipients had opted out of the service.

Numbers have dropped further, and 109 are now ordering the meals.

In fairness, the subjective nature of taste must be taken into consideration.

Individuals will have widely different responses to food, different social and cultural expectations, varying physical and dietary needs, different taste thresholds and physiological responses.

It will seldom be possible to please everyone.

However, there was a big effort made over time to bring the Dunedin Hospital food up to a high standard, and recent investment in new kitchen infrastructure, too.

Given that, Ms Heatly's comment this week that a reason Dunedin consumers might be so unhappy (compared with those elsewhere in the country) was because the food had been of "a much higher quality'' here before Compass took over, might turn some stomachs.

It is important to note the issue has become highly publicised - and politicised.

The Compass contract came during a period of intense public dissatisfaction, low hospital staff morale, as the health board was being replaced with a commissioner, and amid continuing uncertainty regarding the Dunedin Hospital clinical services rebuild.

The very idea of trucking in frozen food as "components'' from the North Island to be "regenerated'' here (and the uncertainty around jobs) was unpalatable to many from the beginning.

All that is likely to be still leaving something of a bad taste.

But the range of opinions is extreme.

Compass says its feedback suggests most recipients are happy with the hospital meals.

Ms Heatly and commissioner Kathy Grant initially said the meals tasted "fine''.

And on a recent visit to Dunedin, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman gave the food a thumbs-up (that the taste test was conducted out of the public and media eye left it especially open to interpretation, however).

Commercial profit and health sector savings will always be the bottom line, but it would be reassuring if the taxpaying public felt they were getting value for money - and what was promised them.

That included (as Compass NZ managing director Glenn Corbett wrote in this newspaper last April) a "food model'' that was "at its heart, about improved patient care'', that would "enhance the food services provided'', where "quality will not be compromised''.

With a 15-year contract and millions of dollars at stake, no-one will be wanting to be left with egg on their face, so there is every incentive to make the deal work for everyone.

There are surely measures the commissioner and chief executive can implement if Compass is, indeed, failing to meet its contractual obligations.

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