If any government decides to mass-medicate every bread-buying New Zealander with a certain additive, it has to be very sure that the costs to the community don’t outweigh any health benefits, and that there are no long-term ill-effects on the population.
Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson faces an interesting test as she decides whether to review or delay a controversial new food standard, which will force all bakers to add folic acid to every single loaf of bread.
The question is, will this centre-right politician – who campaigned vigorously on ridding New Zealand of the “nanny state” – endorse such a major intervention?
An excellent question.
Political ideology and the centre-right principle of freedom of choice aside, however, the big issue is the growing concern that too much folic acid might create long-term health problems for bread-loving Kiwis.
Folic acid has been seen as a miracle vitamin since the 1980s, when increasing pregnant women’s folic acid intake was linked to reductions in birth defects.
No one, and in particular bakers, disputes the beneficial effects on pregnant women. Pregnant women can benefit hugely from taking supplements and eating a healthy diet.
Where some part company is when regulators turn from targeted health programmes for small numbers of women at risk, to a programme of effective mass medication – dosing every man, woman, and child.
I prefer targeting.
Official reports written by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) have been made publicly available. Parts of the reports make disturbing reading to any sandwich-making Kiwi parent.
While it’s been estimated that a pregnant woman will have to eat 11 slices of bread a day to receive the amount of folic acid required, the NZFSA reports confirm in black and white that some New Zealand children will, as a result of mandatory fortification, eat more than their recommended daily intake of folate/folic acid.
In rather alarming advice, the minister at the time was told by NZFSA: “There are unknown risks that may not become apparent for one or two generations. Children will be exposed to much higher levels of folic acid than in previous generations. It may not be until this generation of children have their own children that adverse effects become apparent.”
Does not sound reassuring.
“We continue to have concerns that 13.8 per cent of males aged 5 to 8 years and 8.2 per cent of New Zealand females are going to exceed the upper level intake for folic acid …”
These are the “concerns” that will need to be explained in the event the Government endorses the food standard. It may not be a task the minister will relish.
Katherine is not going soft on her former colleagues!
It’s potentially a very unpopular move.
New Zealanders simply don’t like the idea of governments tampering with their bread. The New Zealand Food Safety Authority’s own research concluded “84 per cent of consumers interviewed, even after providing information on the reasons for fortification, did not support mandatory fortification”.
So listen to them, and don’t do it.