The Times June 02, 2006

Banned by half-baked bureaucracy
By Simon de Bruxelles

A home-made birthday cake for a 96-year-old man has fallen foul of health and safety police

HE WAS born before the discovery of antibiotics and survived the Depression and two world wars, yet staff at a day centre run by Age Concern decided that it was too much of a risk to let him eat a slice of home-made birthday cake.

The Madeira cake was baked for the 96-year-old man by Elaine Richards, a retired district nursing sister and a member of the Women’s Institute.

But when Mrs Richards, who is in her 70s, tried to deliver the cake to her elderly friend, who does not wish to be identified, her contribution to the birthday fare was rejected because of food and hygiene rules.

She was told by staff at the day centre in Barnstaple, North Devon, that only shop-bought cakes were acceptable.

Two hours before she was due to attend the party, Mrs Richards received a phone call from the charity’s director in Barnstaple, who was aware of her offering.

Mrs Richards said: “At first I thought she was joking. I’ve been making cakes for 60 years and have fed a family of four on my cooking — and the worst they’ve had is a bit of indigestion from eating too much.”

Andrea Scott, from Age Concern, apologised for upsetting Mrs Richards, but said that food regulation guidelines had to be followed to protect people in her care.

“I had a long conversation with Mrs Richards. We have very many elderly and frail people that attend day care and some are diabetic. If I let one person do this, it will open the floodgates,” she said.

“We don’t know where these cakes come from, but if something went wrong then we could be sued. It’s not about ingredients, it’s about having things from a shop. It was the first time this has happened and I had to act for the organisation to protect the trustees and clients that are with us.”

She added that the day club was a private meeting place and an alternative might have been for Mrs Richards to have given her friend the cake at his home, or to invite him and any other clients to her home to enjoy the cake.

She added: “I did apologise and I am very sorry for her but I had to abide by the rules.”

Mrs Richards, from Braunton, said: “It’s so nonsensical, these are stupid rules.” Her friend was eventually able to eat the cake at his home.

Ms Scott said that Age Concern’s stance was supported by the local environmental health department. She said: “Age Concern in Barnstaple introduced a rule seven years ago intended to prevent older people in its care from being exposed to unknown food risks.

“The people we look after are often elderly and frail and we like to be sure where all food we serve them while they are in our care is coming from.

Our policy is no reflection on Mrs Richards’s cake-making ability.”

A spokeswoman for Age Concern England said that Barnstaple was following a local, rather than a national, policy.

Two years ago a school at Crudwell, Wiltshire, angered parents by banning home cakes from a summer fête, saying that only shop-bought food was certain to be safe.


Elaine Richards’s cake ingredients: 9oz (255grams in silly measurements) flour, 6oz unsalted butter, 6oz sugar, milk, three eggs, candied peel, lemon zest

The shop equivalent: wheat flour, egg white, sugar, vegetable margarine (hydrogenated vegetable oil, water, salt, emulsifier (E475) colours (E100, E106B flavourings), glucose-fructose syrup, humectant, vegetable glycerine, vegetable and hydrogenated vegetable oil, emulsifiers: E471, E475, egg, baking powder (raising agents E450, E500) colour (E170), wheat flour, salt, invert sugar syrup, skimmed milk powder; preservatives: E202, E200, flavourings, soya, flour, stabiliser: E415, dried egg white, colours E104, E124