Celebrity chefs 'have failed to improve NHS food'
The government has wasted more than £54m on "failed" schemes to improve hospital food, according to the food and farming pressure group Sustain.
Its report says compulsory nutritional standards are needed to ensure patient meals improve.
It warned there had been little change in the past two decades despite numerous initiatives, many fronted by celebrity chefs.
A health minister said patients were being asked to influence menus.
Broadcaster Loyd Grossman and celebrity chef Albert Roux are among those backing the call for legally binding hospital food standards.
Both have fronted high-profile campaigns to improve hospital food.
The report from the Campaign for Better Hospital Food - which is run by Sustain and backed by 89 organisations - found that since 1992 there had been 21 initiatives to improve patient meals.
End Quote Alex Jackson Campaign for Better Hospital Food
It's time for the government to take effective action by introducing mandatory standards for patient meals”
But the schemes failed because they relied on hospitals to voluntarily adopt their recommendations, the report concluded.
At a cost of more than £54m, the money wasted was equivalent to 34 new hospital kitchens, it said.
The group claimed the government had ignored at least 14 warnings from government advisers, MPs, commercial caterers, and health, environmental and animal welfare organisations that voluntary initiatives to improve hospital food were failing.'Meetings, speeches, gimmicks'
It wants to see food-based standards in line with those introduced in schools in England in 2006 in all UK hospitals in the next 18 months.
Alex Jackson, co-ordinator of the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, said: "This report must serve as a lesson to Jeremy Hunt that simply publishing recommendations for the improvement of hospital food isn't good enough, as every one of his predecessors in the last 20 years has found out.
"It's time for the government to take effective action by introducing mandatory standards for patient meals."
Loyd Grossman, who led the Better Hospital Food initiative between 2001 and 2006, said although his team had a number of successes, their efforts were hampered by a lack of political will.
"There has not yet been a noticeable change in the way hospital food is produced, prepared, cooked and served."
Albert Roux, who was asked in 1995 by the Department of Health to give his opinion about how to improve hospital food, added that "meetings, speeches and gimmicks" do not work.
"What we need now is change to the whole hospital food system, starting with the introduction of food standards for every patient meal."
Health Minister Dan Poulter admitted that schemes based on celebrity chefs had not worked in the past.
"Patients are the ones who consume hospital food and are best-placed to decide what is good and what is not.
"That is why an army of thousands of patient assessors will join a tough new inspection programme starting in April 2013 to drive up standards."
He added that there were many fantastic examples of very good food across the NHS and centrally imposed standards were not the answer.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of The Patients Association, said patients regularly contacted their helpline about poor standards of food in hospital.
"High quality, nutritious food is an essential part of a patient's overall hospital experience. It plays a fundamental role in their recovery and helps them to return home sooner," she said.