Hospitals should be forced to serve food that meets higher animal welfare standards, a Westcountry MP has told ministers.
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said making it mandatory for meals to meet RSPCA guidelines would end a "postcode lottery" that sees standards vary across the country.
Government buying standards are mandatory only for Whitehall buying departments, the Ministry of Defence and prisons.
He added that producers who farm to higher welfare standards would be rewarded, and hospitals would serve food to a level now expected from supermarkets.
Mr Parish cited research published by the RSPCA and the Campaign for Better Hospital Food that found most eggs, chicken and pork bought by hospitals are produced from animals that are given just basic welfare standards and live unhappy lives.
The research found that half of eggs bought by hospitals in the South West are from caged hens.
Mr Parish, a former farmer in Somerset who is also chairman of the parliamentary group for animal welfare, told MPs: "Our health service does a very good job, but sometimes – dare I say it – patients might like slightly tastier meals when in hospital. It would certainly improve our view of life, even if it does not cure us instantly. It can have a positive effect."
He added the introduction of mandatory school food standards by the Government in 2005 led to a dramatic improvement in the quality of school meals.
Mr Parish added: "Hospital food should reflect the ethical concerns of the British taxpayer. The introduction of mandatory RSPCA welfare standards for hospital chicken, pork and cage-free eggs is an affordable way to ensure that chickens, pigs and hens that have been reared for patients' meals are given a good quality of life."
But in response, Health Minister Daniel Poulter rejected making improved welfare standards mandatory, arguing it would "stifle" good hospitals that are already helping raise standards across the NHS.
He said: "The problem with a rigid framework or set of criteria is that it might stifle local innovation that can improve standards, as we have seen elsewhere in the NHS."
Dr Poulter also said the Government was looking to link central government payments to "good, ethical" procurement.