Allergen concerns, high risk foods stored above 8C, and loose paint among hospital catering hygiene failings

More details of hygiene shortcomings in catering at James Cook Hospital have been unveiled in a stark report.

The Serco-run service at the Marton Road site was given one out of five stars by Middlesbrough Council food safety inspectors – with “major improvement” deemed necessary after visits in April. Now the authority has released the full report which showed officials uncovered “high risk foods” stored above 8C, “inadequate and inconsistent procedures” for managing allergens, and damaged taps, door frames and “loose paint” posing a risk of contamination in the kitchen.

Serco says many of the problems flagged in the report were “rectified immediately” with the firm working with council officers. Council teams visited James Cook on April 7 and April 20.

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The eight page report offered more details of where Serco had fallen short. Inspectors found discrepancies between documented procedures and practices at James Cook. And “similar concerns” were spotted on the second visit when it came to a lack of allergen controls.

James Cook Hospital

When it came to the cleanliness and condition of the premises and equipment, the council found the floor covering in the kitchen, pot washing and storage rooms was in a “poor condition” and “not capable of being effectively cleaned”. In some places, inspectors found loose paint which posed a risk of contamination.

Elsewhere, worn equipment was found which also offered a contamination risk – including a pan for cooking porridge and a metal sieve used in the bakery area. Taps on the kitchen sink units were damaged and missing caps, while the wooden door frames and doors were damaged in places and could not be cleaned to the inspectors’ liking.

Control of allergens was also flagged up as a concern – with some cereal decanted into containers with no information on them. Inspectors also found a lack of a system to identify allergen free meals in the kitchen and other similar meals served to patients.

The report added: “This poses a serious risk of confusion that may result in the wrong food being served.” Temperature controls were also probed by council teams with officials finding high risk foods in excess of 8C on April 20.

Employees had been told to label the food to be used within two hours but the report added there was no way to determine how long the food had been out to exceed this limit. It added: “It is of great concern to find that out of the two wards visited – ward 14 and ward 33 – both had issues with temperature control.”

Inspectors keep a close eye on temperatures as harmful bacteria such as listeria can grow as the mercury rises. Trust officials were very disappointed with the inspection findings – saying they expected the “highest standards” from Serco.

However, South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust doesn’t have control over commissioning catering – with the historic and costly PFI contract signed in 1999 still seeing the holding company retain responsibility. Serco initially denied the concerns flagged up related to hot food – adding all food served up was “legally compliant”.

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This raised the blood of Middlesbrough Council officials. In the aftermath, Judith Hedgley, Middlesbrough Council’s head of public protection, said: “The officers found a lack of good food safety management which meant that the food was being produced in an environment which did not meet the legal standards.

“This presented a potential risk to the safety of the food served to patients. The findings of the inspection related to both hot and cold food.

“The council is working with the company to address these concerns and will arrange a further inspection at the appropriate time.” Serco later clarified its stance in a statement from its head of food safety Sue Reed – repeating it was committed to maintaining “extremely high standards” of food safety and pointing to past five star scores.

Ms Reed added: “Serco has a comprehensive food safety management System in place, both centrally and specifically for our hospitals. We have a management framework in place to support its implementation and maintenance, and a comprehensive internal auditing regime to ensure compliance.

“We incorporate the results of any external audits into our monitoring of food safety and in March 2022 an external, independent hygiene audit was conducted at James Cook, resulting in a score of 89% – with 100% in the critical elements. However, the inspection by Middlesbrough Council identified concerns relating to technical inaccuracies in our food safety management system and its implementation in practical delivery.

“While Serco acknowledges that this potentially could give rise to inaccurate application of these control measures, we would like to emphasise that all food served at James Cook

University Hospital is routinely provided under strict controls that were not observed at the time of the inspections. A wide range of food and environmental samples were taken for microbiological testing, none of which failed. This supports the verification of the food safety controls we have in place.”

The Serco official recognised and acknowledged the council inspection had highlighted standards at that time “were not as they would expect”. Ms Reed said: “We are taking this report extremely seriously and have conducted a full investigation involving all tiers of management and front line staff, and with full consultation and transparency with our client.

“Many of the issues identified in the report were rectified immediately, and we are now actively working in collaboration with the officers in Middlesbrough Council to ensure we move forward as a matter of urgency to demonstrate our commitment to attaining and maintaining the highest level of compliance and to regain their confidence. Our aim is to address all issues identified by the council as soon as practical. We will be requesting a reinspection and a rescore at the earliest opportunity.”