New Zealand Labour Party Food Safety spokesperson, Dr Ashraf Choudhary, referenced a recent study that found blood folate levels in Australia have increased since the country began fortifying its bread supply in September 2009.
“It’s time Kate Wilkinson pulled her head out of the sand. Three slices of bread containing folate a day could save $39m per year and most importantly could prevent up to 14 Spina Bifida (neural tube defects) cases annually,” Dr Choudhary said in press reports.
Choosing whether or not to fortify food supplies with folic acid is an issue that has many governments scratching their heads. While the B vitamin’s ability to benefit women of childbearing age and reduce neural tube defects in newborn babies is well-founded, it has also been linked with some cancers, especially among the elderly and even among babies.
Australia joined places like the United States, Canada and Chile when it began fortifying bread products mandatorily after a Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) safety review found no inherent safety issues.
“It’s time New Zealand did the same,” said Dr Choudhary.
Along with Australia, New Zealand did commit to folic acid fortification of bread products in 2007, but baulked at the last moment over the cancer concerns.
The UK too has been considering mandatory fortification, but like New Zealand has held back due to the cancer links, despite advocacy from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), which says dozens of babies can avoid neural tube defects if fortification goes ahead.
The Institute of Food Research (IFR) has highlighted some of those concerns that include increased risk of certain types of bowl cancer, cognitive degeneration in older individuals who have depleted levels of B6 and B12, and cardiovascular disease.
“The concern is that the risks (associated with mandatory fortification) make take 10 to 20 years to emerge. So we may have to wait another 10 years to see its full effects,” the IFR’s Dr Sian Astley told this publication in 2009.
At the time a Department of Health spokesperson said: "We will now consider their (FSA’s) recommendation for the introduction of mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid alongside controls on voluntary fortification."
Back in New Zealand, Dr Choudhary went even further than the bread supply, calling for flour to be fortified.
“I am also concerned that the communities who make their own bread at home are not getting any folate because it is not added to the flour. It’s time this Government took action on this issue.”
A survey of the effect of the fortification programme in Australia founda 77 per cent reduction in low serum folate levels after analysing more than 20,000 blood samples collected from a varied group of hospital patients between April 2007 and April 2010. The 77 per cent drop occurred between April 2009 and April 2010.