Contract caterer Sodexo has been forced to apologise after hundreds of vulnerable people received cold or late food under a new £6m meals on wheels contract.
In the first two days of the new deal with Essex County Council, which started last week, 350 meals arrived late.
Sodexo won the contract to deliver 1,120 meals a day from previous provider WRVS after it opted not to re-tender following the conclusion of a five-year deal worth £15m.
The Conservative-run county council and Sodexo have both apologised for the problems.
A Sodexo spokesperson said that unfortunately there have been teething problems.
"We did write to residents in September saying that we anticipated that the first week would be challenging as staff adapted to a number of changes. These included brand new vehicles and rounds.
"Sadly, there have been delays to the delivery of meals to residents in some parts of the county and we apologise to those affected and will refund any late meals."
The spokesperson said that the situation has "greatly improved" and that once the new operation has completely bedded down, Sodexo will offer new menus and additional services including cleaning, shopping, ironing and companionship.
Peter Martin, leader of the county council, told the BBC: "One late visit is unacceptable. We apologise for the mistakes and late deliveries that have taken place to date. We are doing everything we can to put this right."
When asked how the quality of the meals on wheels service could be maintained under a contract worth £1m less, he said it was a "different type of contract".
Rather than meals being cooked at base and then taken out, Sodexo uses a method that sees meals cooked en-route in a van-based oven, which means lunches are ready when the drivers arrive.
Martin said that problems with ovens and vans were partly to blame and that quality was more important than contract price for the county council, and in deciding who to award the contract to, the authority had placed 60% of the emphasis on quality and 40% on price.
County council staff are monitoring the situation by going out on the vans, which have reduced in number from 54 to 38.
Hazel Jeffery said when her elderly mother's meals on wheels lunch arrived both cold and late on Tuesday, she was left in tears.
"It was heart breaking," said Jeffery. "To see how upset she was by this episode makes me seethe with frustration. Knowing she has a hot meal at lunchtime is vital for both of us."
By Janie Manzoori-Stamford
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