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Cake in the office likened to passive smoking by food watchdog chief

People should stop bringing cake into the office because of the risks it poses to colleagues’ health, the head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has said.

Susan Jebb, chairwoman of the FSA, compared the culture of bringing cakes into the office to the health hazard of smoking in pubs.

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She told The Times it was important for workplaces to have a supportive atmosphere when it comes to food: “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 [working] environment.

“If nobody brought cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, okay, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.

“With smoking, after a very long time we have got to a place where we understand that individuals have to make some effort but that we can make their efforts more successful by having a supportive environment."

Not everyone saw the comparison as apt. Martin Tiplady, managing director of HR consultancy Chameleon People Solutions, told HR magazine that there were plenty of subjects more worthy of discussion.

He added: “The trouble with quotes like this is that they have the opposite effect to the one intended, trivialise the issue and give the impression of a nanny state – the polar opposite to the [rationale] intended.”

As part of her conversation with the newspaper Jebb also suggested imposing restrictions on the advertising of junk food, which she said undermined people's free will.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at consultancy firm Peninsula told HR magazine that while providing staff with healthy snacks can help staff take good lifestyle choices, an outright ban on cake would likely be unreasonable and unnecessary.

She said: "Having that opportunity to sit down with colleagues to enjoy a brew and a slice of cake together is a great way to strengthen working relationships, and promote positive mental wellbeing, which is something that employers should be looking to prioritise.

“At the end of the day, everyone is individually responsible for what they do and don’t choose to eat. Just because there is cake in the office doesn’t mean that people are being forced to eat it.

“Likewise, putting pressure on staff to only eat certain foods in the workplace, or shaming them for their choices could also have a negative impact, especially on those with eating disorders or other health conditions. Employers should be very careful about how and what they communicate with staff around this."

From a legal perspective, the lack of restrictions on food mean employers are free to take any course of action they desire, according to Stephen Mather, director of Stephen Mather Solicitor.

He said: “As a ‘person of weight’, I’d always partake in cake. It's one of the few perks of going into the office these days.

“While it isn't like breathing in damaging smoke, dieting is hard and a delicious sweet snack can be irresistible. I get their thinking, but for employers out there, it would not be discriminatory to ban cakes (or allow them) and so the answer is a piece of cake: do what you like.”