Govt reviewing folic acid policy

The Government is reviewing whether it will have to go ahead with the mandatory introduction of folic acid to bread, Prime Minister John Key said today.

Mr Key's comment's follow accusations Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson was flip-flopping over the safety of folic acid in bread.

Ms Wilkinson has been critical of the decision to use the additive from September, which was part of a joint New Zealand-Australia food standard.

However, she has said since the Labour government signed up to it she had no option but to let the implementation go ahead.

Mr Key contradicted that today and said officials were looking at what options there were to avoid introduction.

"That's the level of advice that we are now getting, to find out what are the consequences, what happens, what process do we officially have to go through (to pull out)," Mr Key said.

"We understand the official review process and we understand our interpretation of the law ... but we're seeking another opinion on that."

Technically there could be consequences for breaching the joint agreement on food standards, but Mr Key felt Australia was unlikely to pursue the issue.

Forcing large parts of the population to eat folic acid when there was no need for it raised issues.

Mr Key said he wanted the issue sorted "sooner rather than later" and "hopefully" before the standard was due to come in September.

A number of Australian states had not been so happy with the standard, but Mr Key understood it had not been a big issue in Australia.

Mr Key's decision to intervene follows apparently contradictory positions on folic acid by Ms Wilkinson.

She said she had no option but to let the implementation go ahead after the Labour government signed up to it, despite having concerns the risks might outweigh the benefits

Last night she told TVNZ's Close Up the addition of folic acid was safe "despite earlier the same day admitting she had serious concerns", New Zealand Association of Bakers president Laurie Powell said.

Ms Wilkinson's comments came after a leading scientist's claims that an unpublished study showed there was no increase in cancer risk with high-dose folic acid.

Professor Murray Skeaff, a specialist in human nutrition at Otago University, said results, presented at a conference in Prague two weeks ago, "showed that there was no significant increase or decrease in the risk of cancer".

Mr Powell said Prof Skeaff has also changed his mind having previously stating that adding folic acid to bread would "represent an uncontrolled clinical trial".

Health concerns were only one concern for those opposed to the fortification, Mr Powell said.

The move robbed New Zealanders of freedom of choice and symbolised "nanny state intervention".

"The latest research muddies the waters and adds weight to our call that the minister should delay the implementation of this standard."

Lyall Thurston, speaking for a coalition of parents of children with spina bifida, said the planned supplements would reduce the number of babies born with neural tube defects.