"From this September we are introducing minimum standards on fat, sugar and salt content," said education secretary Ruth Kelly. "We intend to introduce tougher nutritional standards from September 2006."
The move ties in with the UK government's mini-manifesto, which, among other things, contains a commitment to raise the nutritional standard of meals served up to pupils, with an investment programme in kitchen facilities and equipment, and the skills of catering staff.
The mini-manifesto also provides for the creation of a 'School Meals Trust' designed to help head teachers, parents and school governors raise standards. It says the education watchdog OFSTED will be given a new role to inspect and report on those standards.
UK school dinners have received a great deal of unflattering attention of late. According to a recent Channel 4 programme, schools have to manage on a meals budget of only 37p to buy the ingredients for a child's two-course lunch, about the price of a can of cheap dog food.
In the past, main courses ahve consisted largely of heavily processed fast food made from mechanically recovered meat, large quantities of fat and salt and a great deal of artificial flavourings and additives.
The government scheme therefore reflects growing awareness in the UK, and Europe as a whole, of the importance of a nutritional and balanced diet. Market analyst Datmonitor says that a survey carried out by the company in October 2004 reveals the consumer's increasing search for healthy products. It found that 83 per cent of Brits felt that it was 'important to improve health through diet'.
In addition 62 per cent also indicated they had actually taken active steps to improve health' in the 12 months previous.
This trend is likely being driven by growing obesity rates - there are over 28 million overweight or severely overweight adults in Britain, yet Brits are the biggest on-the-go consumers in Europe, says the market research firm.
In any case, the food industry is beginning to respond. The government's school initiative has been welcomed by the UK Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC).
"We recognise the best diet is a balanced diet featuring foods from all five food groups and we strongly support the Balanced Plate model," said MLC consumer affairs director Richard Lowe. "This includes a regular intake of red meat, which contains a complex bundle of important nutrients.
"There is a need to rework the specifications of products being purchased by schools, especially processed products. The government move towards new nutritional standards is a step in the right direction."
The MLC says it is already working with sausage and burger manufacturers on the development of lower salt and lower fat products. The commission has also identified a need for a better and more formalised training programme for chefs and cooks in the school meals market.
In addition, the MLC launched late last year a nutritional training CD-ROM specifically for the public sector.
"This was written with the assistance of dieticians, representatives from all market areas, Government departments and agencies," said Lowe. "The CD-ROM helps all caterers to deliver a better understanding of client needs and how to address these needs through positive and easy to understand nutritional training, based around the Balanced Plate model."