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Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification Update

Date Published
 14 September 2009
 Joe Lederman

By Joe Lederman
FoodLegal Lawyers and Consultants
© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, September 2009

On Sunday 13 September 2009, fortification of folic acid in bread-making flour was required to be implemented in Australia as mandated by Standard 2.1.1 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. In practical effect, flour millers around Australia are required to introduce synthesized folic acid into Australia bread making flour, but the wide legal definition of “bread” means that Australians will be consuming extra folic acid when eating cakes and biscuits.

This situation is further confounded by the mounting scientific evidence that excess consumption of folic acid may have adverse health effects while, at the same time, there are various moves by government agencies in overseas jurisdictions openly questioning or delaying any introduction of mandatory fortification measures for folic acid.

In September 2007, the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (“the Food Standards Code”) was amended to introduce the mandatory fortification of bread-making flour with folic acid but flour millers were given a 2-year transition period to be ready by 13 September 2009. As highlighted in previous FoodLegal Bulletin articles on this issue, it is our serious concern the approval processes undertaken in relation to this amendment to the Food Standards Code were both legally and procedurally flawed. 

The introduction of mandatory fortification is proceeding in Australia despite several countries around the world reconsidering introducing mandatory folic acid fortification following studies emerging linking folic acid with adverse health effects:

  1. Despite our bi-national Food Standards Code, New Zealand has chosen to opt out of this particular mandatory fortification arrangement.  The New Zealand government is waiting on further scientific advice and will review the situation in 3 years time.
  2. Ireland has put into abeyance mandatory fortification until further scientific research is available.
  3. The United Kingdom has continued to delay the introduction of its proposed mandatory fortification scheme for folic acid in bread.

FoodLegal has received information that some flour millers are not prepared to fortify based on legal liability risks and concerns that have already been conveyed to those responsible for setting Australia’s Food Standards.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (“FSANZ”), the government agency responsible for assessing scientific evidence and developing the Food Standards Code, has launched a new publicity campaign to promote folic acid. This campaign has prompted a response from the health expert commissioned to explore the cost-effectiveness of a mandatory fortification scheme. In The Australian on 12 September 2009, Dr Leonie Segal was quoted as saying: "If you're only talking about a small percentage of the population that you're targeting, putting folate in the bread flour for everyone wouldn't be your first choice."

FoodLegal therefore asks again why the government of Australia has not yet seen fit to stop a move that potentially carries health risks for broader categories of consumers of flour-based products beyond peri-conceptional women: namely all men, all elderly, all young people and children, and also females who are not at their child-bearing age.

It will be interesting to see whether the new Federal Chair of the Australia New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council, Mr Mark Butler, is prepared to reconsider the Australian position in light not only of the above scientific arguments but also the known difficulties of practical enforcement and monitoring.  Australian flour millers are being asked to medicate Australia's population.  Yet they are not doctors capable of doing so.  From a political viewpoint, Mr Butler is in the best position to drive a review of a misguided government policy.

For other FoodLegal articles on Mandatory Folic Acid Fortification, see the following:
Folic acid fortification mandate in debate
Folic Acid: Canadians are being overdosed!
Mandatory folic acid fortification: Big questions remain unanswered