Let them eat cake – but not in the office

Many may have recently noticed reports of a speech made by Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford and boss at the Food Standards Agency.

The bit that caught the headlines was the claim that bringing cake into the office is as harmful as subjecting your colleagues to passive smoking.

Okay, Jebb was speaking in a personal capacity. That would probably pass unnoticed by most but regardless Jebb leads the organisation responsible for the regulation of standards in food safety and what we eat.

The comparison made is wholly misguided. Bringing a cake into the office on your birthday to share with colleagues has long been a part of our social fabric. Simply being in a room with a piece of cake may, if presented with a particularly tempting choice, cause a person to salivate, but that’s about it.

Passive smoking, on the other hand, is unavoidable when among smokers. It is an involuntary act harmful to health.

We may wish to be informed and make reasoned choices about what we choose to eat. The results of research into food safety and other useful information should be available to assist in making those choices. In certain cases, legislation requires that information be provided.

We already have a plethora of regulations on levels of salt, milk straight from the cow, crusty bread and many other foods.

Jebb crossed a line. Some have said to grab a headline, but for what purpose?

Smoking is regulated by law. The logic of what Jebb has to say is that your cake-eating habits should similarly be regulated and join myriad other restrictions. But heaven forbid that sharing a birthday cake in a work social setting should be another.

Those who offer such a blinkered approach to the place of food in society, ignore the rich history and traditions of our food culture and the contemporary role it plays in all our lives ought not to occupy a pivotal role in determining future food policy.

The line between restrictive official diktat and the ability to engage in cultural and social celebrations may, if we are not careful, move relentlessly in one direction.


Let them eat cake – but not in the office first appeared on Musings on a theme on 22 January 2022 and was cross-posted here.