Folic acid decision 'common sense'

Press Release 30/8/12

The NZ Food & Grocery Council says the Government’s decision to not mandate folic acid fortification of bread but to maintain the voluntary regime is a victory for common sense.

“In our view this is the common sense way to treat this issue and preserve consumer choice without dosing every single loaf of bread,” FGC CEO Katherine Rich said.

“It’s the right thing to do, based on the current science, which is increasingly not clear. And as long as that is the case, it doesn’t make sense to mandate fortification and effectively expose every man, woman, and child by artificially raising levels of folic acid in an attempt to reach a small number of women.

“New Zealand is not alone in having second thoughts about mandatory fortification. Ireland and the United Kingdom have done the same and currently no developed European country has mandatory fortification of folic acid in all bread.

“There is enough evidence to suggest our folate levels have increased considerably under voluntary fortification and that with more time to continue this work that trend is expected to continue.

“The food industry supports the Government’s aim of improving folate levels in women of child-bearing age.

“In the two years since the implementation of the voluntary programme, bread manufacturers have shown they are serious about improving folate levels. The last report to the Ministry for Primary Industries showed that some 34 lines of packaged breads were fortified, meaning there is plenty of choice for consumers.

“But FGC’s baking members say they will continue to work on expanding that, despite the technical difficulties of getting the target levels of folic acid in bread exactly right.

“The issues surrounding folic acid have always been the impact on the rate of neural tube defects , the impact on the target population, the impact on other groups in the population, and the impact on consumer choice.  An independent report commissioned by FGC and the NZ Baking Industry Research Trust has made some significant findings on those impacts.”

That report, and further advice, found:

  • Folate levels in New Zealand women are as good if not better than those of women in the United States after mandatory fortification was introduced there.
  • The folate status in the United States appears to be sufficient to prevent all folate-sensitive neural tube defects.
  • Fortification may  prevent, conservatively, up to six neural tube defect pregnancies each year in New Zealand, but the report suggests that given the significant reduction of folate-sensitive neural tube defects over the past two decades, the current rate is probably at a ‘floor level’.
  • There is a potential for harm to small subsets of the population from consuming too much folic acid.

“This report should put New Zealanders’ minds at rest that the Government’s decision is the right one, that there is a good level of folic acid in the food supply, and that voluntary fortification is working, providing a suitable level,” Mrs Rich said.

The report, by Professors A. David Smith of Oxford University and Helga Refsum of the University of Oslo, as well as FGC’s submission to the Ministry for Primary Industries on fortification, can be viewed in the Issues section of this website.