To folate or not to folate?

Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson's apparent inability to back out of the decision to add folic acid to New Zealand's bread shows the problems with trying to merge New Zealand and Australia's markets

From September, all New Zealand's bread (other than "organic" loaves, thanks to the Greens) must be "fortified" with 135 micrograms of folic acid for every 100 grams of bread. However, the Minister responsible for overseeing this new standard, National's Kate Wilkinson, doesn't want this to happen. Yet there's apparently nothing she can do to stop the new requirement coming into force. What gives? And what does the issue tell us about our developing relationship with our big cousins across the ditch?

A bit of background is needed here. Grabbing the baking metaphor and running with it, folic acid is a necessary ingredient for a healthy baby. If a mother is deficient in it during her early pregnancy, her child has a much, much higher risk of malformations of the spinal cord (the most common of which is Spina Bifida). This is why the Ministry of Health adviseswomen planning a pregnancy to take folic acid supplements 4 weeks before and 12 weeks after conceiving. However, a significant number of women still do not get enough folic acid through their diet, either because they don't follow that advice or because they are not planning a pregnancy and don't realise one has occurred until too late.

To catch these women, a number of countries (including the USA and Canada) mandate that folic acid be added to bread. There is good evidence - such as this, or this- that doing so raises folate levels in the blood, thereby decreasing the incidence of malformations of the spinal cord in newborns. Based on this evidence, in June 2007 Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) created a new food standard requiring that Australia and New Zealand do likewise. That standard comes into effect this September (alongside another standard requiring the mandatory addition of iodinised salt, which seems to have completely slipped under the radar).

So far, so simple. Ingesting folic acid helps stop kids from being born with a particularly debilitating condition. Adding folic acid to bread helps ensure women get enough of it. So how can Kate Wilkinson have a problem with any of that?

Well, one potential problem is that while the addition of folic acid to bread is aimed solely at those women who may become pregnant, everyone who eats that bread will ingest it. (Unless they are prepared to pay a significant premium for "organic" bread, that is!) And there is some emerging evidencethat ingesting very high doses of folic acid may contribute to a greater risk of developing prostate cancer. Of course, you'd have to eat a hell of a lot of "fortified" bread to get to the sorts of levels these studies are dealing with. (They have been carried out on men who take folate supplements, in response to earlier suggestionsthat such supplements may help reduce the risk of colon cancer.) But even an outside chance that adding folic acid to bread to protect some children may increase the risk of cancer for all men complicates the cost-benefit calculation.

That calculation can, of course, be settled by better evidence - just how strong is the link between folic acid intake (and what level of folic acid intake) and prostate cancer? But it does then lead to a more ideological concern, one which I suspect really underpins Kate Wilkinson's unhappiness with the policy.

Why should the state intervene to force all "non-organic" bakers to change their recipies, and most bread consumers to alter what they eat, to produce a benefit for a few? After all, is not the responsibility for birthing healthy children the responsibility of the mother? And isn't this just typical of the past Labour Government's nanny-state mentality, to reach for a regulation that limits everyone's choices rather than put the onus on individuals to look after themselves and their children?

Putting to one side the problem of how a woman not planning a pregnancy is supposed to "look after her own child", given that folic acid is needed before conception occurs, you can see why this line of argument might appeal to a National minister. It's a challenge explicitly thrown downby ex-National MP, Katherine Rich, who is now the chief executive of the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council. So why hasn't Kate Wilkinson leapt in and rescinded the new regulation?

Here's where our cousins across the Tasman enter the fray. Successive New Zealand governments have seen the path to economic salvation as lying with closer economic integration with our largest trading partner, Australia.  On the whole, National is a big fan of this process; John Key has even "encouraged debate" on a single currency for the two nations. However, closer economic integration means standardising a whole range of regulatory matters, including questions of food safety. Which is why the FSANZ agency was set up in the first place, to bring Australia and New Zealand's regulatory requirements on such matters into alignment and thereby minimise cross-border barriers to trade.

No doubt Kate Wilkinson could, if she really, really wanted to, find a way to unilaterally override the FSANZ's decision. But if she were to do so, it would undermine the basis of trust and mutual forebearance that underpins these sorts of trans-Tasman relationships. Simply put, why should Australia bother taking the time to negotiate these sorts of common regulatory regimes if a change in government in New Zealand then causes them to get canned? And given that New Zealand has more to lose if these sorts of common regulatory regimes end, why risk pissing off our neighbours like that?

All of which means that Kate Wilkinson is reduced to carping on the newsthat this is "a standard that was put upon us by the last government" (ignoring the fact that in 2007 there was no evidence of any health risks from folic acid), while asking the FSANZ to review its decision. But because Australia is so much bigger than us, it has a much greater representation on the FSANZ, which means any reversal of the standard essentially depends on Australia's members agreeing to let New Zealand off the hook.

Consequently, the issue of folic acid in bread is about more than the ideological question of whether a definite benefit to a few justifies imposing a measure of risk on all; although that certainly is a big part of it. It also is about New Zealand's sovereignty, and the way in which international agreements place constraints on government's ability to do what it wants. Pundit's own Tim Watkin, blogging in his other gig as Q&A producer, already has grumbled about the mania for strengthening our links with Australia. Perhaps other readers have thoughts on whether this is a good idea?