Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When taxonomy matters

Reading a recent post on Fairing's Parish about taxonomy I was reminded of a recent momentous legal judgement about the correct classification of the M&S chocolate teacake, which has for twenty years been classified by the tax office as a biscuit and therefore subject to VAT. That means we the cake eaters have been overcharged by 17.5% per teacake. (It was not clear whether this has also affected what I take to be the paradigm example of this species, namely the Tunnocks tea cake, but never mind.)

In fact there are two issues here. First there is the question of how to distinguish between a cake and a biscuit. Of course, some cases are very obvious: a Rich Tea is a biscuit, but a Black Forest gateau is a cake. But there are some other more difficult examples. What, precisely, is a Jaffa Cake? (It seems to be classed for tax purposes as a biscuit, and the authoritative site: A Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down agrees.) Incidentally ANCOTAASD has a useful field guide for cake/biscuit identification here.

Second even once the specimen has been classified, there are some further very complicated rules about which biscuits and which cakes are subject to VAT. For example, a biscuit such as a chocolate chip cookie 'where the chips are either included in the dough or pressed into the surface before baking' is not subject to VAT, whereas 'wholly or partly coated biscuits including biscuits decorated in a pattern with chocolate or some similar product' are. The BBC offered the following useful table:


How various products are classified by HM Revenue and Customs

Standard rated [17.5% VAT]


All wholly or partly coated biscuits including biscuits decorated in a pattern with chocolate or some similar product

Gingerbread men decorated with chocolate unless this amounts to no more than a couple of dots for eyes

Chocolate shortbread


"Snowballs" without such a base are classed as confectionary

Shortbread partly or wholly chocolate-covered

Zero rated [no VAT]


Chocolate chip biscuits where the chips are either included in the dough or pressed into the surface before baking

Jaffa Cakes

Bourbon and other biscuits where the chocolate or similar product forms a sandwich layer between two biscuit halves and is not continued on to the outer surface


Marshmallow teacakes (with a crumb, biscuit or cake base topped with a dome of marshmallow coated in either chocolate, sugar strands or coconut)

Caramel or "millionaire's" shortcake consisting of a base of shortbread topped with a layer or caramel and (usually) chocolate or carob



RJR said...

I heard that McVities once successfully proved in court that a Jaffa Cake is a cake not a biscuit by using the following definition: cakes get harder as they go stale, while biscuits get softer. Old Jaffa Cakes are harder than fresh ones, and therefore Jaffa Cakes do not pay VAT. But I haven't been able to find this on the web just now. Wikipedia only says that they produced a giant Jaffa Cake in court.

On a similar theme I read in the Daily Telegraph at my parents' house a definition of the difference between knowledge and wisdom: knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad. This seems to me to sum up much of what is wrong with the world today, since not putting tomato in a fruit salad is entirely a matter of culture not wisdom. No wonder we all find it so hard to just get along.

stc said...

Barak and I have been having a running discussion on the (specifically British) definition of a your post is an important contribution to our emerging sociology and taxonomy of the biscuit! We'll make sure to cite you in the resulting article on the nature of biscuitness. (I expect it to be highly rated in any new metrics-based REF structure.)

JJB said...

What of Kendal Mint Cake?