A report has found evidence of poor food safety in meals given to people seeking asylum in the capital of England.

Concerns were raised about food in catered accommodation in London, with reports of unsafe products and a lack of provision for people with allergies.

Sustain, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, and Life Seekers Aid conducted the research between October 2023 and February 2024. In the UK, asylum claims are processed by the Home Office. This UK Government department is responsible for providing these people with accommodation and support to meet their needs.

There are two main types of housing. Hotels and hostels mainly provide temporary accommodation, and residents typically have no access to kitchen facilities, although some may have appliances such as a kettle or fridge. Dispersal accommodation is longer-term and self-catered. These sites usually have shared kitchen facilities so people can cook their own food.

Poor staff hygiene and expired food
Focus group participants included 29 people from varied backgrounds and in different situations. This included men and women aged between 18 and 69 from seven different global regions.

Focus group findings from hotels and hostels revealed various health and safety deficiencies in food provision, resulting in illness. Language barriers made it hard to complain or communicate food issues.

Issues listed by participants included poor hygiene, staff not using gloves to serve food and contamination by hairs or other objects, food safety problems such as raw or undercooked meat, insects in food, mold, and claims of people being hospitalized with food poisoning.

There were also reports of being given food that was past the use-by date or where this date had been removed or concealed.

Focus group results from dispersal accommodation found people were offered poor quality and expired food. Respondents reported receiving expired food from charitable food aid and when shops give away items. Participants said the food they ate sometimes made them sick, and they were routinely worried it would.

Improving the situation
Mothers said there were serious issues with the safety of food in hotels, and it was not appropriate for those with allergies. There were instances where they had to use unsterilized tap water from the shared bathroom to make formula for their babies. Issues such as undercooked meat and expired food were a major concern for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and young children.

One participant whose child had a severe allergy reported problems accessing the necessary allergen information when receiving food from charitable providers or community meals.

Areas for improvement were identified, such as having a clear complaints system and accountability for food standards, regular environmental health inspections, and the Home Office holding contractors accountable for the food they deliver. Minimum nutrition standards for food in catered accommodation should be set in line with school food standards, with food hygiene monitored and enforced.

Sustain said council environmental health teams should carry out inspections, work with hotel managers to replace any providers that are not meeting food hygiene standards, and ensure hotels have systems for reporting food-related illness.

“This report lays bare the horrifying impact of food insecurity for people in the asylum system: children going to bed crying in hunger, people becoming ill because of the only food they can eat, a daily struggle to make ends meet,” said Sarah Teather, director at Jesuit Refugee Service UK.

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