The appalling state of college kitchens across Oxford University was revealed this week, after a Cherwell investigation uncovered more than 134 breaches of basic hygiene regulations.
Inspections carried out in 27 colleges exposed numerous violations of food safety laws, including dust and mould growth, damaged cooking equipment and “ingrained dirt.”
It unmasked a shocking picture for students, many of whom pay hundreds of pounds a year for food prepared in kitchens not fully up to Health and Safety standards.
The worst offending kitchen was that of Balliol College, after the Environmental Health Officer from Oxford City Council condemned the conditions as “unacceptably dirty.”
Meanwhile at Worcester College, staff were forced to work around a collapsed ceiling in the plate wash area, while tiles, shelves, the main catering unit and a dry goods store all desperately required repair.
Pest control was also a problem at Mansfield and Pembroke Colleges, with rats ravaging a rear yards full of debris. A mouse was also found feeding off food spilling from wheelie bins at New College, which was also criticsed for dirty work surfaces.
The offences were among many later exposed by Cherwell investigators in documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.
The biggest number of infringements was at Balliol, where inspectors found 18 breaches of hygiene regulations late last year.
In a subsequent letter to the college’s Domestic Bursur, the inspector warned: “I am concerned at the continued decline in the structural fabric of the premises.”
Among the violations he highlightered were evidence of dust and mould growth, “unacceptably dirty” doors to fridges, blistering paint and even the floor throughout the kitchen “starting to split and break up.”
The colleges are inspected regularly by Oxford Council Health Officers, usually every 12-18 months.
Not all college kitchens came in for criticism however, with Lincoln College receiving a glowing report from Health inspectors.
It was described in the report as having “excellent premises,” with a “beautiful traditional kitchen which has kept up all the original elements i.e. large fireplace, wooden beams and floors.”
It also reserved notable commendation for the “tight ship” run Head Chef, Jim Murden, who has been working in the kitchen for more than 35 years.
Merton also passed with flying colours and was described as “very well run” with kitchen and equipment in “very good order” and high standards of cleaning evident. Corpus Christi was also described as “a good example overall.”
Officials at colleges with less glowing reports responded to the revelations, with many stressing they were working to ensure the highest possible Healthy and Safety standards.
Many Balliol students remained completely unaware however of the conditions in which their food was cooked.
“I like the food we get a lot,” said student Isabel Thompson. “It always looks clean and safe and there’s no nails in the soup or anything, so I’m a fan.”
At Mansfield, the Food and Beverage Manager Lynn Partridge said that the college had endeavoured to improve their facilities since the report into conditions.
“The inspection brought to light several structural problems which have now been rectified,” she said.
“We have since be re-inspected and the Environmental Health Officer was completely satisfied.”
Despite these developments however, not all students at the college seemingly satisfied with the food on offer.
Melvin Chen, a second-year Economics and Management student at the college, said, “The food really is awful – I usually eat at the Business School instead.
“I had lunch there the other day and it really was terrible, so I feel justified in saying that.”
Another student, Beatrice Male said the food was remarkably expensive for what was on offer.
“The food is quite expensive, there is a two for one mark-up on everything,” she said. “You can’t even get a packet of mini-hobnobs for less than £1.”
New College JCR’s Food, Housing and Amenities Officer, Steve McGlinn, said he was very surprised by the safety breaches identified at his college.
He particularly pointed out that a survey last term found that members of the JCR rated food quality and service at 4.2 out of 5.
“Certainly, over the last year, we’ve seen a marked improvement in the food,” he said.
“Bringing in a new Head Chef has particularly made a difference. I know from working there that H&S is taken seriously, and so I, for one, am generally happy with how things operate.
“Over the past year, there’s been some repainting too, which is all the better.”
Balliol and Worcester, the colleges with highest number of contraventions, both have low food costs relative to other colleges. However, many students are paying more for the products of some of the catering facilities with the most infringements. Mansfield, for example, had 6 breaches of legislation, and yet the average lunch in Mansfield hall is over 70% more expensive than Balliol and a third more expensive than the college average.
At Pembroke and New College, the student buying lunch and dinner from hall every day of term can pay over £1,200. In contrast at Christ Church, the cheapest college in terms of food, it can cost as little as £764.
Lyn Partridge highlighted that the figures at Mansfield do not take into account different qualities of food. “I’m not aware that we are more expensive than any other college for the basic choice; however, students cannot expect items such as rib eye steak for the same price as sausages.”
The price of excellence is not necessarily high for the student however. While eating at Lincoln costs just above average, Corpus and Merton have some of the least expensive halls around, with lunches averaging about £2.55 and dinners about £3.20.