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Bakers fail miserably with bread fortification project

Bakers fail miserably with bread fortification project

NZORD - the New Zealand Organisation for Rare Disorders

When the government in 2009 first postponed, then in 2012 cancelled mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid (vitamin B9) to prevent Neural Tube Defects in babies, and instead agreed to the baking industry doing voluntary fortification of bread under a code of practice, Prime Minister John Key said, “I expect them to deliver on this commitment”. How will he and Food Safety Minister, Nikki Kaye, now hold them to account when recently released figures show the percentage of bread fortified seems to have actually declined in the first sixteen months up to December 2013?

The August 2012 Cabinet paper on the topic estimated about 17% of all bread was fortified at that time. Figures from the Baking Industry Trust’s report say that just 14.4% of packaged and sliced bread was fortified at the end of 2013. These breads are about 90% of all bread production, leaving a clear implication that total volume of all bread fortified is actually less than 13%. That’s nearly a 25% reduction in the volume of all bread fortified in the first 16 months of their fortification programme.

“It is clear that the bakers have failed miserably with their project, and cannot be relied on to organise and implement a public health programme. It is equally clear that government must act promptly and intervene for the health of the nation’s children”, says John Forman, executive director of the NZ Organisation for Rare Disorders.

Forman says that the Cabinet paper confirms the incidence of about 80 cases of fatal or seriously disabling neural tube defects in NZ each year, and the view that about 24 of these could be prevented each year by the fortification regimes that were under consideration at the time. “But there is experience around the world suggesting even more cases could be prevented”, says Forman, “with reductions of between two-thirds and three-quarters of cases in some countries suggesting prevention in NZ of up to 53 cases per year”.

NZORD sees the avoidance of 24 to 53 cases per year as a big opportunity for NZ, yet figures from the Bakers’ report, when lined up against analysis in the Cabinet paper, indicate only 3 or 4 cases per year currently being avoided by the Bakers’ weak and indecisive efforts.

“What is critically important in this debate is to recognise the enormous negative impact of folate deficiency on developing babies in their mother’s womb, the considerable burden of grief and loss associated with NTD cases, and how these cases accumulate over time. In September this year as we go to the election, there will have been a 5 year loss of impact from fortification possibilities, resulting in a minimum of 100 cases occurring that would otherwise have been avoided”, says Forman. He also said there may be as many as 245 preventable cases if the international experience of NTD reductions was reflected in New Zealand.

“Approximately half of these babies die before or soon after birth, with the remainder seriously disabled. In these five years of government prevarication and Bakers’ failure, we have already seen at least 50 preventable deaths from NTDs, getting close to double the Pike River toll, and at least 50 more that will cost about $4 million each in lifetime economic, healthcare and disability support costs, as noted in the Cabinet paper’s economic analysis”.

Forman says that if the higher prevention levels proved achievable in NZ, the number of preventable deaths occurring from NTDs would exceed the Christchurch earthquake death toll before the next Parliamentary term expires.

“Should government remain indifferent to these scenarios just because they happen one at a time over time, rather than all together at once? Should the grief and loss be ignored simply because it occurs within individual families usually unseen and unreported to the rest of society? And why on earth should the government leave responsibility for this important issue to an industry group that obviously has no motivation to make the programme work, and little understanding of the health and disability impact? We are dealing with an epidemic of NTDs that needs firm and decisive action from government”, Forman concluded.


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