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Tuesday, 11 March 2008
Page: 1418

Mr RAMSEY (10:39 PM) —I rise to my feet this evening to try and bring to the attention of this House and the people of Australia an unfortunate by-product of what I think was a very well-meant decision by FSANZ, Food Standards Australia New Zealand. The decision by FSANZ to request the mandatory addition of folic acid to bread-making flour from 13 September 2009 was made for all the right reasons, with the best of intentions, with the aim of reducing neural tube defects, which affect around 900 pregnancies a year. Neural tube defects cause conditions such as spina bifida and anencephaly—horrific, debilitating diseases which all of us would do anything we could do to reduce and, if possible, to abolish.

However, it has been brought to my notice by a small flour mill in my electorate and by the Flour Millers Council of Australia that the industry has severe doubts about its ability to deliver on the technical requirements of this addition. The specifications are that between two and three milligrams of folic acid per kilogram—there is a minimum amount and a maximum amount—should be delivered into the flour mix. It was deemed that, because we are already adding thiamine to bread flour at a rate of 6.4 milligrams per kilogram, it would be easy to add folic acid into this mix and that all would be pretty much right. But with thiamine there is no upper limit. The flour millers tell me that, for ease of application, because there is no damage from adding too much thiamine, they always add a bit extra. In the process of flour making, there are often overruns, missed batches and things which do not quite measure up to spec, so they blend those back into the overall flour mix. If you have already added your thiamine and then it comes back at nine milligrams per kilogram, it is not going to be detrimental to anyone. It will probably do you more good than harm. But, if you follow this process in the case of folic acid, you will find that you go over three milligrams per kilogram, and, unfortunately, there is some medical evidence around that this is a harmful rate of folic acid.

The flour millers association were asked to respond to the committee on what the application costs of this would be. They felt as though they were a little rushed at the time and did not fully understand the implications of it themselves. They came up with figures of about half a million dollars per flour mill. Even if that is feasible, that means there will be a very uneven impact, because there are some very large flour mills in Australia—there are about 28 in this scoping study—and at the other end of the spectrum there is a flour mill in my electorate which is the smallest in Australia. The Cummins flour mill, situated in Cummins, on southern Eyre Peninsula, is a 77-year-old family company producing five tonnes an hour and employing eight people in that small community. The estimated cost to them, should this even be technically feasible, is around $150 per tonne of flour. That is going to put them right out of the market. The owner-manager there tells me that, if he has to raise the price of his flour by $150 per tonne, that will be the end of them.

Cummins is an EC-declared area. There have been bushfires in that area of southern Eyre Peninsula. I would be the first to admit that this should not impinge on a decision about public health, but it is a difficult situation. I am advised there are as many as nine mills in Australia classified as small which will be affected by this legislation. What the Flour Millers Council of Australia is seeking at the moment is a 12-month moratorium on the implementation of this while a full review takes place. I think this is probably not an unreasonable request. On top of that, the flour millers have also brought to my attention the United Kingdom government’s deferment of a decision on the mandatory addition of folic acid, following conflicting reports on its health benefits, including links to colorectal cancer. I am in no position to comment on the veracity of these claims, but I think, in the light of the fact that this appears also to have some severe economic ramifications—certainly an unintended consequence for these very small mills—that it is probably a fair request. (Time expired)