It’s been billed as the biggest peacetime catering operation. And for the first time an Olympic committee has set strict rules on the quality and provenance of the food it serves during the Games – good news potentially for British food and drink producers. Rob Brown reports

When the Olympic circus arrives in London, it will bring with it 16,500 athletes, 168,000 workers, 20,600 journalists and nine million ticket holders. They’ll spend roughly £750m, says Visa, which expects Britain to land a £5.1bn windfall over the following four years, thanks to the Games.

The jury is still out on what the Games will be worth for supermarkets. Visa predicts they will generate £80m in incremental sales, Verdict Research reckons £10m, while a source at one of the big four says “it won’t be as big as the World Cup”. C-stores along the Olympic Route Network are also expected to benefit, not just from a boost to sales during the event, but also from the potential permanent lifting of restrictions on night-time deliveries.

But the biggest winners are likely to be the suppliers and caterers serving the Games’ 26 venues. And thanks to an Olympic first strict rules governing food procurement for the Games producers of British food and drink could snaffle the biggest slice of all.

The 14 million meals that will be served during the event will be worth approximately £1bn to suppliers and caterers, estimates Jan Matthews, the head of catering at the London 2012 Organising Committee (LOCOG) responsible for what has been billed as the largest peacetime catering operations the world has ever seen.

For Matthews, the event is about much more than sport. It’s about showcasing the best of British food and drink and leaving the industry with a lasting legacy.

“We’re looking to set new standards,” she says. To this end, her team set out a range of standards governing the quality and provenance of food to be served during the Games, enshrined in LOCOG’s 42-page Food Vision. “The key thing for me is keeping the due diligence in place to make sure we keep true to the Food Vision. By the end of September, we’ll have tasted every dish that will be served during the Games. That’s tens of thousands of dishes. Some partners might say we are micro-managing them we absolutely have to if we’re going to deliver our Food Vision.”

The vision is as ambitious as the shopping list is long. The Olympic Village alone will get through 25,000 loaves of bread, 330 tonnes of fruit and veg, 232 tonnes of spuds and 200 tonnes of meat and fish. Only produce unavailable in Britain will be sourced from overseas (much of this will be Fairtrade certified) and all UK-sourced items will be Red Tractor assured.

That’s great news for British farming, say commentators, especially for the UK’s 78,000 Red Tractor-assured farmers. “This gives them the opportunity to show the world what they can do. The benefits will be felt all the way through the food chain,” says Richard Cattell, head of marketing at Red Tractor, who expects the Olympic backing to help add another £1bn to Red Tractor food sales within a year of the Games, bringing the total to £13bn.

Provenance and high standards are of course important, but so are the health and nutritional credentials of the food being served. One thing hungry athletes require is protein and LOCOG says it will need 19 tonnes of eggs to feed this demand. The industry has welcomed the fact that every whole egg used will be British Lion Mark free range, but Kevin Coles of the Egg Information Service questions why the assurance doesn’t include eggs used as ingredients. “Why would you source those eggs from elsewhere when you have perfectly good supply from the UK?” he says.

There are also 75,000 litres of milk that need to be found. Organic producers are hoping to help meet that demand, but they want the nod soon. “We’re getting to the stage where we can’t hear what the commitments will be quickly enough,” says Soil Association trade director Finn Cottle, “You can’t suddenly start producing more milk just because of the Olympics. We need to know by the end of the summer.”

LOCOG’s sourcing standards set out its “aspiration” to use organic suppliers where produce is “available and affordable”. Other targets include Leaf Marque certified fruit and veg and RSPCA Freedom Food poultry and pork, although Matthews says it won’t be clear how many of these aspirations can be met until the end of September.

She’s hopeful the milk will be organic, thanks to the already established supply chain of Olympic sponsor McDonald’s, which only serves organic milk at its restaurants. Matthews is keen to tap this supply for LOCOG’s own uses. “The stocks are already there and the synergy we have with McDonald’s is already there,” she reasons.

McDonald’s like all the official Olympic sponsors is clearly looking to wring every last penny from its sponsorship and maximise the brand building opportunities. The company will serve up to 20% of the meals at the Olympic Park through its two on-site restaurants and the company is using its partnership with the Games to trumpet its ethical credentials. Jill McDonald, CEO of McDonald’s UK, describes the Games as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to promote the best of British, and ultimately serve up an Olympic legacy of a stronger farming sector”.

What the legacy a word that’s hard to avoid in Olympics-related discussions will be for farmers and smaller producers is already starting to become clear. The Greater London Authority has already signed up to LOCOG’s Food Vision and the inclusion of smaller British producers in the Olympic supply chain will help speed their evolution, says Matthews. “We don’t want them investing just for a four-week period,” she adds. “We’re working to make sure the Games can be the catalyst to get these smaller suppliers to the next stage.”

If this happens, it won’t just be the big players that have their cake and eat it.