The decision to mandate the addition of folic acid to bread shows important health decisions are often best made by Government leadership, not left to the private sector.
The NZMA has long advocated for the addition of folic acid to reduce birth defects and miscarriages.
It has made several submissions to successive Governments, and Chair Dr Alistair Humphrey says it’s pleasing this Government has finally taken the action the organisation wanted.
“Our congratulations and thanks to Minister Verrall for this important step. This shows leadership and commitment to the health of New Zealanders,” he said.
As has been noted by media, plans were made for mandatory introduction in 2009, but the Government of the time put a halt to that after opposition from bakers and the Food and Grocery Council.
“That decision was half-baked ” Dr Humphrey said, “It was driven by profit, not health.”
Australia went ahead with the plan and the rate of neural tube defects dropped by 14percent.
“What it shows is that a strong Government should make and stand by big important calls that benefit the health of New Zealanders, and not be swayed by industry lobby groups and big business.
“Birth defects could and should have been prevented.”
While self-regulation might work in some instances, the folic acid case showed private interests couldn’t always be relied on to act in the wider good.
“We appreciate the concept of consumer choice. But the reality is there are unplanned pregnancies in New Zealand, many in our most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups. People who struggle to achieve a healthy balanced diet through food poverty are most at risk of having a baby who suffers from spina bifida.
“Sometimes it is necessary for Government to take steps to protect the innocent or unaware.”
Dr Humphrey says he hopes the lessons of this issue have been learned, as there is still much work to be done to keep New Zealanders safe.
“Sugar tax is one example. We’d like to see a tax of 20% or more on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) – many of which are in fridges around the country.
“The over-consumption of sugar is a contributor to obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay, and SSBs are a major source of sugar in the diet.”
A proportion of the revenue from the excise tax to be earmarked for programmes to tackle obesity and other health issues, and for continuing research and evaluation of the effectiveness of the tax, Dr Humphrey said.