Armstrong on Folic Acid

John Armstrong writes:

The political furore over putting in is not confined to arguing the scientific merits of putting folic acid in .

It is about much more than that. It is an argument about the morals of mass medication. That raises all the connotations of “” knows best .

And no one is against people being able to buy bread with folic acid added to it. But why should every male, and every female aged under 16 or over 50 be dosed with folic acid, when the main benefit of it can not apply to them, and there is some uncertainity about risks.

Her handling of this hot potato has been lambasted largely on the back of a less than impressive performance on TVNZ’s Q&A programme the Sunday before last. Wilkinson seemed woefully under-prepared for the bombardment she received from interviewer Paul Holmes and the Greens’ food safety campaigner, Sue Kedgley. …

While making it clear she was looking for a means for New Zealand to escape its transtasman obligations, she looked like a minister hostage to the advice of her officials and seemingly powerless. Her solution that the decision to mix folic acid into bread be reviewed after its introduction may have satisfied legal considerations but it seemed somewhat farcical.

There were three basic positions you could take. One is you are against compulsory addition of folic acid in bread and are not going to let it happen. Another is you think it is a good thing to have folic acid added to bread and defend that decision. The third is that you are against adding folic acid to all bread, but won’t or can’t stop it happening. That is the worst position to adopt as it is saying I agree it is wrong, but I’ll let this bad thing still happen because I am powerless. It is a lesson for other Ministers.

Exit Wilkinson. Enter the Prime Minister. The Government will release a discussion document tomorrow with three options – deferral, rejection or the status quo. But Key has already said he prefers deferral, bringing the matter to a close. If this is another example of Key’s brute pragmatism, there are also lessons for his Administration.

The reason Key is so popular, is he is always getting involved and sorting out problems like this one, the old s92A etc etc. But over the longer term, the Government as a whole needs to be seen as performing very well – not just the Prime Minister.

Labour’s unwavering backing for folic acid in bread might have meant the issue was dead in terms of parliamentary politics. However, it has turned out to be very much alive politically outside the Beltway.

And Labour still back the mass medicating of folic acid. This means it may be an issue in the 2011 election as Labour will effectively be campaigning on their plans to make folic acid compulsory in bread. The review of the decision is timed for just a few months after the 2011 election so parties will be expected to have a position.

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