A woman recovering from major surgery was left "crying and begging for food" after being given half a tomato for breakfast at a Canberra hospital.
Senior staff at the National Capital Private Hospital in Garran have apologised to Priscilla Sutton, after she was provided meals labelled by the Healthcare Consumers Association as "clearly inadequate".
Ms Sutton, who is vegan and gluten-free, was given the half-tomato on Thursday as her first meal from the kitchen after surgery. The previous evening, she'd been given toast by the nurses but threw it up.
Ms Sutton said after "crying and begging for food", she was given an out-of-date packet of cornflakes and soy milk.
However the situation became more serious, when Ms Sutton was given a tofu curry for lunch and had an adverse reaction.
"A copy of the ingredients and two Google clicks later I discovered the main spice they use interacts with two drugs that I (and a lot of other patients I assume) take," Ms Sutton said.
For dinner she was given a tray of 20 packets of dry rice cakes and a curry that looked similar to the tofu dish she had eaten earlier.
Ms Sutton was assured the curry was different to the one that had made her unwell. She did not have a reaction to it but described it as the "bleakest" meal she had ever eaten.
After complaining to staff, Ms Sutton received "five mouthfuls of baked beans" and an (in-date) packet of cornflakes for breakfast on Friday morning.
Since posting photos of her meals on Twitter, Ms Sutton said she had received an apology from senior staff and a dietician had created a meal plan for the rest of her stay.
She said the rest of her care had been "terrific in every other way" but wanted a higher standard of food for future patients.
While National Capital Private Hospital is run by Healthscope, meals are provided by ACT Health as the hospital has no kitchen and is situated on the same campus as the Canberra Hospital.
An ACT Health spokesman said the National Capital Private Hospital menu was different to that of the Canberra Hospital, and Healthscope chose that menu.
He said National Capital Private Hospital patients were strictly under the care and treatment of that hospital's medical staff, and Canberra Hospital Food Services produced what food was asked for under their service-level agreement.
Health Care Consumers Association executive director Darlene Cox said while hospitals had to cater to a lot of diverse dietary requirements, vegan and gluten-free meals were common requests these days.
"It was clearly inadequate and I would encourage Healthscope to have a close look at this experience and apologise to this woman and ensure she has more appropriate food for the rest of her stay," Ms Cox said.
"Any patient being cared for in a hospital needs to be provided with good quality, nutritional food. Food is medicine in a way. It's essential to people's healing and recovery and it's not a minimal issue at all.
"I know Canberra Hospital has gone to great lengths to address the incredible variety of needs consumers have, but because there's such a diverse range of dietary needs it's hard to deliver every time. However, they need to look at their processes. It's a tough job but it doesn't mean you can't get it right."
Ms Cox said complaints about hospital food were "cyclical", although the association had received several complaints lately about food at Calvary Hospital.
She said hospitals had a duty of care to provide satisfactory food to their patients, as failure to do so would force patients to seek food elsewhere.
"We've heard, through our network, of people getting UberEats in hospital, which presents other challenges because food is a type of medication and hospitals need to monitor what food patients have because when it becomes something outside their control there may be perverse outcomes as well," Ms Cox said.
The ACT Health spokesman said Canberra Hospital spent $41.10 per day on food for their patients, and had hired a new chef in August who was revamping their menu. He could not provide comment on what the National Capital Private Hospital spent on food daily for its patients.
"Healthy nutritious food is an essential part of a patient’s recovery and Canberra Health Services want to ensure that our patients enjoy the food they receive while in our care. Improving food quality is a continuous process," he said.
"Recent menu changes that have been made include the introduction of fresh, seasonal vegetables. All menu changes are agreed to by the Canberra Hospital nutrition department prior to being implemented."