London (AFP) - Rubbery chicken and soggy vegetables could be banished from NHS wards and canteens across England under new rules aimed at raising the standard of food and drink in hospitals.
An independent report published on Friday lays out new legally binding standards covering nutrition, hydration and healthier eating.
Hospitals will be ranked according to the quality of their food in annual patient-led assessments and the results will be published on the NHS Choices website.
Under the new standards, patients will have to be screened for malnutrition and given personal food plans, while hospital staff will have to ensure patients get the help they need so that they can physically eat and drink.
Hospitals will also have to stick to government buying standards to reduce salt, saturated fat and sugar and increase consumption of fibre, fish and fruit and vegetables.
Those that fail to follow the guidance risk penalties including the levying of "significant financial sanctions", said the report by the Hospital Food Standards Panel which includes input from royal colleges and nutritional experts.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said: "We are making the NHS more transparent, giving patients the power to compare food on wards and incentivising hospitals to raise their game."
But shadow public health minister Luciana Berger questioned whether the new standards would be enforceable.
"Everyone wants to see the quality of hospital food improved, but without proper enforcement there is a risk that these new standards will simply be ignored," Berger said.
"If Jeremy Hunt is serious about improving patients' experience of the NHS then he must also address the crisis in A&E and the growing waiting lists for operations."
NHS hospitals in Scotland and Wales already have mandatory nutritional standards in place.