Should kids be allowed to drink milk shakes at school? Or eat cereal bars? These are the sorts of question that the four bodies charged with improving school food in the UK have been tussling with as they continue Jamie Oliver's crusade to rid schools of Turkey Twizzlers and chips.

Unfortunately, they have made some absurd decisions, according to food and drink suppliers.

Take the School Food Trust, which sets standards for England and last week provoked a row not just on one but two fronts with its ban on milk shakes and fruit bars (see The Grocer, 16 June, pp8, 24).

Worse, they say, is the total lack of consistency between the policies. So while England, Wales and Northern Ireland have banned cereal bars, they're deemed fine in Scotland. Crisps are also allowed north of the border if they are low in salt and fat, though not anywhere else.

One of the problems is the speed at which the policies were implemented - and the fact they differ from country to country. The School Food Trust rolled out its first standards last September, for instance, but Wales has only just finished consulting on Appetite for Life, while in Scotland, the Schools Health Promotion Nutrition Bill was passed in March, and in Northern Ireland, the regulations only come into force this September. School Food Trust campaign manager Emma Heesom admits there is room for more joined-up thinking, but insists glitches will be ironed out.

"When we launched the initial standards we did so at quite a rate," she says. " As we launch further standards I expect we will compare notes more. We are talking to our UK counterparts."

That's little comfort to suppliers who are now calling on the bodies to urgently review their policies. More consultation is needed, says Kellogg's communication director Chris Werman. "There is a need for a more detailed look at the credentials of snack bars but at the moment there is little urgency being shown," he says.

It makes no sense to ban cereal bars, argue suppliers, pointing out that since the new rules were introduced there has been a rise in kids leaving school premises to buy chocolate in corner shops, which of course are not affected by the bans on so-called unhealthy snacks.

The School Food Trust believes that banning cereal bars will help wean kids off processed foods. But even the nutritionists ridicule this sort of woolly thinking.

"Lots of foods are processed. You could argue that skimmed milk is processed, yet that is encouraged in schools," says Lisa Miles, a scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation. "What the authorities need to be more clear on is the nutrition and ingredients. Some cereal bars are obviously very high in sugar, but there is an argument for taking them on a case-by-case basis. It is unrealistic to think you are going to change the eating habits of society overnight by just banning processed items such as cereal bars."

Ditto fruit bars, says Paul Simmonds, chief executive of Glisten. Fruitus bars, made by Glisten subsidiary Lyme Regis Fine Foods, are banned in England - though bizarrely, if the fruit were removed and replaced with fat and sugar, the company could claim it was a baked product, in which case it would be acceptable.

More alarming still are the contradictions with wider government policy. Take chips. They have been an obvious target for nutritional reformers across the UK. They are now only allowed to appear on lunch menus twice a week.

The ban includes oven chips, defined as deep fried because of the brief time they are cooked in sunflower oil in the factory. Yet oven chips get the green light in the FSA's traffic-light labelling scheme and Ofcom, for being advertised to children as they do well under the Nutrient Profiling Model. And the list of anomalies goes on. Tomato ketchup fails under the NPM, but is allowed in all schools. Cheese is allowed in schools twice a week even though it falls foul of the NPM.

The inconsistencies have left suppliers like McCain baffled. "If a product meets a government-agreed nutritional standard, which deems it to be OK for children, why is it restricted in schools?" asks Bill Bartlett, corporate affairs director of McCain. "The execution of this strategy is fundamentally flawed."

Those behind the school food strategies insist their policies are roughly in line with each other. Many in the industry beg to differ - and will be asking tough questions as to why so many seemingly healthy foods are no longer allowed on school menus.School rules


In: Water, skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, yoghurt, fromage frais, fruit or vegetable juice, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and veg, deep-fried foods and cheese only twice a week, ice cream and ice lollies except those with chocolate or confectionery Out: Sugary fizzy drinks, crisps, cereal bars, chocolate


In: Water, skimmed/semi-skimmed milk, fruit juice - maximum 250ml, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and veg, deep-fried foods and cheese only twice a week, low-fat/salt crisps, cereal bars Out: Sugary fizzy drinks, high-fat/salt crisps, chocolate, ice cream


In: water, skimmed/semi-skimmed milk, fruit juice only with meal, fresh fruit, salads, bread sticks, yoghurt, fromage frais, oily fish at least once a fortnight, two portions of fruit/veg per child daily, deep-fried foods and cheese only twice a week Out: Sugary fizzy drinks, crisps, cereal bars, chocolate, ice cream

Northern Ireland

In: Water, skimmed/semi-skimmed milk, fruit juice, fresh fruit and veg, oven chips/deep-fried foods and cheese only twice a week Out: Sugary fizzy drinks, crisps, chocolate, ice cream, cereal bars