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New Zealand defers folate decision -

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New Zealand defers folate decision

Lindy Kerin reported this story on Friday, August 28, 2009 12:46:00

BRENDAN TREMBATH: New Zealand will go its own way and won't make it mandatory for bakers to add
folate to bread.

In a joint agreement Australia and New Zealand were to make it compulsory for food manufacturers to
add folic acid to bread to help reduce birth defects.

It was supposed to begin next month but New Zealand has delayed the move for another three years,
saying further research is needed.

Lindy Kerin reports.

LINDY KERIN: If taken prior to and during early pregnancy, folate or folic acid can help reduce the
risk of spina bifida.

Two years ago Food Standards Australia New Zealand recommended the mandatory fortification of bread
flour with folic acid to help reduce the incidence of birth defects like spina bifida.

But now Australia will go ahead on its own.

New Zealand's Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson has acknowledged community concerns about the
plan and says further research is needed to evaluate the risks and benefits.

Mike Daube is a professor of health policy from the Curtin University. He says it's a disappointing
decision.

MIKE DAUBE: What seems to have happened in New Zealand is that with the new government some
commercial interests have run a very sharp and effective scare campaign.

The Government isn't denying the benefits or the safety but it's been bounced out of this very safe
and effective measure by a very, I think very irresponsible commercial campaign.

It's a tragedy for the people of New Zealand. It's especially a tragedy for the disadvantaged
people of New Zealand.

LINDY KERIN: But recent studies published in the United States have linked folic acid in diet to
higher rates of prostate cancer in men and bowel disease in children.

Associate professor Mark Lawrence from the public health and nutrition faculty at Deakin University
says based on international research New Zealand has made the right decision.

MARK LAWRENCE: Well there's emerging evidence that folic acid is being found in unpredicted levels,
higher than anticipated levels in the blood of populations around the world where this policy has
been implemented.

And this unmetabolised folic acid is a concern because in a sense it's a population-wide
experiment.

And the sort of risks that are now starting to be indicated are promoting the progression of
colorectal cancer as well as in many older adults masking the symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency.
And various other risks have been suggested as well.

LINDY KERIN: Mark Lawrence says Australia should reconsider its position and follow the lead of New
Zealand.

MARK LAWRENCE: It's got a very low effectiveness. It's of course attempting to address a very
tragic issue in terms of hopefully it will prevent cases of neural tube defects. But the food
authority's own modelling shows that only 8 per cent of cases will be prevented with this measure.
In other words 92 per cent of cases won't be prevented.

And because it's non-targeted 21-million Australians are going to be exposed, most of whom will
have no benefit and quite possibly be exposed to risks.

LINDY KERIN: The New Zealand Government will now focus on introducing a voluntary program for
bakers to include folate.

But Australia is pressing ahead.

Mark Butler is the Parliamentary Secretary for Health. He says he respects New Zealand's decision
but he says the standard is the result of decades of research.

MARK BUTLER: This decision which comes into effect in coming weeks has been under consideration now
for several years and dates well back into the previous government.

It's been the subject of very vigorous scientific assessment by the food standards authority of
Australia and New Zealand. That assessment has been peer reviewed both here in Australia and
internationally.

And on that basis and on the basis also of experience in North America and elsewhere we still think
that this is the proper thing to do and we intend to proceed with it.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: The Parliamentary Secretary for Health Mark Butler ending Lindy Kerin's report.