Voices: The UK food watchdog is right – cake belongs at home, not in the office

No cake, please! We’re at the office  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
No cake, please! We’re at the office (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What were you thinking when you baked that Victoria sponge? That wicked white chocolate and cherry loaf, that malevolent madeira? That brattish, bolshy battenberg? Whatever it was, whoever it was for: stop it immediately. Your sweet temptations are not wanted here.

Lest you were wondering where “here” might be, I mean right here – at the office. I can see rows of my Independent colleagues, right now, writing furiously. Banks of desks and break-out rooms and screens shedding blood, tears, sweat and Sky News. The last thing anyone needs is a sticky toffee pudding-flavoured tray-bake littering the layout of a page.

I mean it, though, and so does the head of the UK’s top food watchdog, Professor Susan Jebb. She says it with zest: that baking cakes at home and forcing them on to your colleagues is tantamount to dragging them into a cloud of cigarette smoke in a busy pub – like it’s 2006, all over again, in those smoggy days before the ban.

Speaking from her position as chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, she told The Times: “We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time, and we undervalue the impact of the environment. If nobody brought cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes during the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.”

Don’t you remember what it was like? I do: I’d come home from the pub and have to hang my clothes over the bannister, far away from my bedroom, to avoid the waft of smoke and sadness and someone’s over-zealous perfume. If we went to a club and stayed “out out” all night, I’d sometimes wake up with a cough. Even after the ban came in, as a non-smoker, I’d find myself hanging out in the garden in the freezing cold nonetheless on a Friday night – keeping my “smoker-friends” company. I could feel the effects of this passive indulgence around me all the time, hanging around like... well, like smoke – but I put up with it. Bathed in it, even though I knew it was bad for me. So, too, with office cake.

In my first job at a local newspaper in the Welsh valleys, ruled over by an editor with a very sweet tooth, cakes became routine – and nightmarish. Not only did you feel the people-pleasing pressure of having to comply with such generosity; such gratifying “gifts” – but it became harder and harder to say “no” when it brought him so much obvious pleasure to feed us. Put simply, when it came to cakes bought by my boss, I couldn’t not – even though I really didn’t want one. I ended up prioritising his feelings, over my own.

And that’s why I understand exactly where Professor Jebb is coming from: the thing about offices, or any co-workspace, is the plethora of different people and tastes and bodies and beliefs and routines and weird, obsessive food fads (I stand by my decision to eat the same sushi lunch, five days a week).

Rishi Sunak doesn’t agree – the prime minister has dismissed the food tsar’s warnings against bringing cake into the workplace; saying he believes in “personal choice” and “is very partial to a piece of cake”. His official spokesman said that while the government wants to encourage healthy lifestyles and is “taking action to tackle obesity”, which has cost the NHS £6bn annually, the PM didn’t believe the way to deal with this issue was to “stop people from occasionally bringing in treats for their co-workers”. Amusingly, Sunak’s press secretary added that he is “very partial to a piece of cake” and most enjoys carrot and red velvet cake.

I might sound a little salty, here: but I do believe there’s a genuine point to make about personal choice when it comes to cake and other people, and it’s not the same as Sunak’s. Giving any gift, no matter how well-intentioned, can become an albatross, a poisoned chalice, a millstone; something the recipient feels duty-bound to accept and to consume – even at the expense of any number of undisclosed issues: diet, health, a private battle with food, eating disorders or illness – or the simple burden of being a fussy eater.

It can feel humiliating to have to “explain” why you don’t want (or don’t like) something. For some, it may even trigger the horrors at home or at school, of being ordered to “wipe that plate clean”. I still shudder when I remember having to eat spam, liver and beetroot; of being the only eight-year-old left in the lunch hall, not allowed to leave the table until it was gone.

Keep cakes out of the office and you avoid all of that. You may be a truly brilliant baker, but save it for Instagram. And, hopefully, you won’t be offended if some of us don’t take a slice.