ELDERLY people in nursing homes should not be deprived of the occasional "undesirable" battered sausage or slice of pizza, the head of the Health Service Executive (HSE) has insisted.
Tony O'Brien was reacting to the controversy that has arisen over a HSE tender for 90 tonnes of frozen chips, 62,000 sausage rolls and other highly processed foods, which was first revealed in the Irish Independent.
It led to claims that health chiefs were not practising what they preached while dishing up less-than-nutritious, fat-laden food.
However, Mr O'Brien accused those who criticised the HSE for ordering the foods as "making a meal" of what is just a very small portion of its menu delivered to the bedside in hospitals and nursing home dining rooms.
And it is not just patients who need to be catered for – the preferences of staff and visitors also have to be considered.
He said people who become long-term residents in nursing homes may have enjoyed sausages, battered fish or pizza when previously cooking for themselves so it was only right for the HSE to give them choice.
"We would not wish to be put in a position where we would have to directly say to them that they will never again be allowed them," he added.
However, he added the HSE encouraged everyone to minimise their consumption of processed foods.
The tender, which covered four years, was intended to service hospitals and nursing homes in nine counties.
Mr O'Brien, who was quizzed about the HSE plans at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Child, said the health authority spent €32m on food each year and 73pc of this was on fresh produce.
The rest goes on items like tea and coffee as well as frozen foods to supplement fresh varieties. Around 3pc goes on processed foods like pizza and sausage rolls.
The contract in the tender was for the HSE West and nine counties. The quantity would have amounted to 30 burgers or 18 pizzas a day being served in the HSE west region.
Earlier this week, Health Minister James Reilly said he intended to talk to the HSE about the tender and said patients with cardiac conditions should not be dining on that kind of food.
A stay in hospital should be a chance for staff to educate people on healthy eating, he added.