Today’s World Food Safety Day is just two months out from the mandatory addition of the B-vitamin folic acid to non-organic wheat flour for breadmaking – a move that will help protect babies from death or lifelong disability caused by neural tube defects.
“The theme for the fifth World Food Safety Day is ‘food standards save lives’ and you couldn’t find a more literal example of this than folic acid fortification,” says New Zealand Food Safety deputy-director general, Vincent Arbuckle.
“Based on the Australian experience – where neural tube defects substantially decreased, particularly in the indigenous population, after the introduction of mandatory fortification – we expect the benefits to specifically Māori and Pasifika babies to be significant after we start applying the same standard here in August.”
Naturally found in food, folate is a B-group vitamin that is essential for cell growth and reproduction. Taking folic acid – the form of folate used in additives or supplements – a month before and three months after conception has been proven to reduce the risk of neural tube defects (NTDs), like spinal bifida.
“In Aotearoa New Zealand, where about half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it’s not practical for folic acid supplements to be taken a month before pregnancy, and the rate of NTDs is significantly higher here than in countries that have a mandatory fortification approach. Our Pasifika and Māori pēpē are also overrepresented in NTD statistics,” says Mr Arbuckle.
“In 2009, Australia introduced the mandatory food standard requiring non-organic wheat flour for breadmaking to include folic acid. NTD rates subsequently fell 14% in the general population, 55% in teenage pregnancies and 74% in indigenous populations.
“So, the New Zealand Government’s decision to adopt the joint Australia/New Zealand standard requiring the mandatory addition of folic acid to non-organic wheat flour for breadmaking is a safe and effective way of decreasing the rate of NTDs.”
Mandatory folic acid fortification has been safely and successfully implemented in more than 80 countries, and a 2018 report from the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor and the Royal Society Te Apārangi found no evidence that fortification of food with folic acid has any harmful effects.
However, to give consumers choice, fortification will not be required in non-wheat flour, organic wheat flour, or flour not intended for breadmaking. Products containing folic acid or flour fortified with folic acid will also be clearly labelled.
The new standard comes into effect on 14 August 2023. For more information on flour fortification: Fortification of flour with the B vitamin folic acid