The controversial and divisive issue has been on the agenda for some time but late last week, Kate Wilkinson, New Zealand’s minister for food safety, announced that bread fortification with folic acid will remain voluntary but the target is for 50% of all packaged bread to be fortified eventually.
“In making my decision in favour of voluntary fortification, I read all the submissions and the clear message is that people want choice,” said Wilkinson.
The decision was made following submissions from the Folic Acid Working Group, which included health professionals, representatives of families affected by neural tube defects (NTD) and bread industry members.
“Folic acid plays an important role in reducing NTDs in babies, but fortification of bread is only one part of a wider package of initiatives,” Wilkinson said.
Common sense decision, says food body chief
Katherine Rich, chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), told FoodNavigator-Asia that the decision was the common sense way to treat the issue and preserve consumer choice without dosing every bread loaf.
“It is the right thing to do based on the current science, which is increasingly not clear. It doesn’t make sense to effectively expose every man, woman, and child by artificially raising levels of folic acid in an attempt to reach a tiny number of women,” Rich said.
“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,” she added.
Bread industry is pro-choice
The Ministry for Primary Industries will work with and monitor the bread baking industry to achieve the goal of fortifying 50% of packaged bread.
The Bread Industry Association of New Zealand (BIANZ) has said industry will work towards fortifying half of all packaged bread with folic acid to a level of 2 milligrams per kilogram of bread. Brendan Williams, president at the BIANZ, said that the move was a small victory.
“The craft bakers of New Zealand have maintained a sensible approach to this issue, and have shown that by making a variety of products containing added folic acid, we have helped to increase the incidence of this life-changing element in our population,” Williams said.
Health experts appalled at decision
However, John Forman, executive director at New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders, said in a statement to local media that up to 20 babies a year would die or be seriously disabled by NTDs because of the voluntary stance.
“The minister's decision is a missed opportunity to take decisive action on this important public health issue and mandate a simple and effective way of reducing risk for women and their babies,” Forman said.
“In the last three years, industry has only introduced fortification in 12.5 per cent of their products and has failed to deliver a promised public awareness campaign. Their commitment has been lacking and I have little faith that they will raise their game now,” he said.