New Zealand was due to join Australia in the mandatory measure, but shelved plans as it called for more research into the matter. Ireland also recently found there was no need to make folic acid fortification mandatory as voluntary actions by food manufacturers had raised levels.
Folic acid, a B vitamin, is typically associated with neural tube defects in babies. It is thought to reduce the risk of NTDs by up to 70 per cent if taken prior to conception and up to 12 weeks after conception.
The measure is expected to reduce by 14 per cent the incidence of NTD in the 300 to 350 pregnancies affected with the severe NTD, spina bifida, each year.
“We have permitted the food industry to voluntarily add folic acid to foods such as bread, fruit juices, yeast extracts and breakfast cereal for more than 10 years,” said Dr Paul Brent, chief scientist at FSANZ.
“There have also been many education campaigns to encourage women to take folic acid supplements. While this has increased women’s intake of folic acid they are still not reaching the required level of 400 micrograms a day,”
He added: “The National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that women who are pregnant, or considering becoming pregnant, should take a folic acid supplement at least one month before and three months after conception to reduce the risk of birth defects. Up to 50 per cent of pregnancies in Australia are unplanned, so while some women may be aware of the need to take supplements, this may not occur at the right time.”
However, folic acid and folate may mask vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly, which can have severe neurological consequences and excessive consumption has been linked with some cancers, especially in the elderly.
Such concerns partly explain why mandatory folic acid fortification is not universal but does occur in more than 50 countries inclduing Canada and the United Statesand most of South America.
But Dr Brent sated: “We have concluded that the mandatory addition of low levels of folic acid to bread will greatly reduce the risk of babies being born with spina bifida and that it is safe for the whole Australian community.”
He said the programme would be closely monitored by health authorities.
Organic bread makers are exempt from the rule.