Kate Wilkinson and Sue Kedgley interviewed by Paul Holmes on folic acid in bread
PAUL It was a decision made in New Zealand four years ago, it was very much pushed and championed by the Health Minister of the time, Annette King. Now in September what was decided then is due to come into force, this is just weeks away. It will be compulsory in New Zealand for bread to contain folic acid. Leave aside nanny state concerns and baking industry protests, there are also growing international health concerns about folic acid. Now in a moment we'll be speaking to the Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson who says she can do nothing about it, and the Greens Sue Kedgley who says the Minister must to something, but first Damien Christie with this look at folic acid and the new law.
Archive Clip - Damien Christie: 'Research shows if pregnant women don't have folic acid there is a much higher risk of the child developing spinal chord defects such as spina bifida. It is recommended women take folic acid four weeks before and 12 weeks after falling pregnant. The problem is many women don't know they're about to be pregnant so don't take supplements during the recommended period. Including folic acid in bread is estimated to result in up to 14 fewer birth defects each year, however critics say women would need to eat eleven slices of bread each day to reach recommended levels and want the government to delay. Some studies have also shown high levels of folic acid increase the risk of prostate cancer.
Food Standards Australia/New Zealand has mandated that all bread other than organic loaves will be required to include folic acid from September this year. Food Safety Minister Kate Wilkinson said she's not a fan of the decision but has no choice but to go ahead.'
PAUL Kate Wilkinson and Sue Kedgley are with us thank you very much for joining us. Is this folic acid plan for the bread 100% safe Minister?
KATE WILKINSON - Food Safety Minister
Well can I say for a start it's disappointing that we're having this discussion two years later. We should have had it two years before when Annette King bulldozed the standard through, and what really disappoints me is that she didn't even need the decision of Cabinet, she didn't even go to Cabinet for it. We've been landed with it.
PAUL Alright let's go back to the question. Is this folic acid in the bread 100% safe. Can you assure the country folic acid in the bread is 100% safe?
KATE The amount of folic acid in bread is deemed to be at safe levels, what is unclear and the science is a bit light, is the risks.
PAUL Well the science is heavy enough for the Irish and the British governments to delay implementing their folic acid plans, why don't you delay until we know more science?
KATE Well what I can do Paul and what I am doing is I'm going to ask the Ministerial Council Meeting in Australia in October for a review. Perhaps it would help if I explained the process. The process was Annette King obviously put the standard in place. Before the standard was in place New Zealand had the chance to opt out, so we had that opportunity to opt out and retain our sovereignty, she didn't take that of course because it was her hobby horse, now we have to work within the process.
SUE KEDGLEY - Green MP
Are you saying that the standard's going to come in in September and then you'll review it in October?
PAUL And what's more you've got to go to Australia to ask permission about what we have in our bread and butter?
KATE Well let's not also forget that we have some benefits of our Trans Tasman regime, in the first five years since the Food Treaty which was 1995 so it's been in place for a long time. Our food exports increased 70%. 2008 our food exports to Australia alone were 1.6 billion, so we've got some pluses as well.
PAUL Hang on we go back Minister. The folic acid's coming in in September and you're gonna ask the Australians to review it in October. This is daft. You've got the power to revoke it right now.
KATE No I don't.
PAUL You do so.
KATE I have to work within the joint food regime.
PAUL Section 11L of the Act.
KATE And why don't you look at Section 11E Paul.
PAUL The Minister may at any time amend or revoke any food standard, you can do it.
KATE Subject to Sections 11E to F.
SUE It is a very interesting issue for many reasons, one of them is food sovereignty, what the Minister's saying, she thinks it's a terrible decision, she's concerned about the health effects, but she says we have to go ahead because of some silly treaty with Australia, and by the way in that Canberra based organisation the Minister was talking about, and the Ministerial Council New Zealand has one vote out of ten, so what she's saying is we've lost our sovereignty. If she was the government and she'd made the decision, or the previous government had made the decision she would revoke it, but she can't. Now the other thing is the Minister cannot say, cannot assure New Zealanders that it is safe, because new evidence has emerged and quite recently, some of it since we signed the standard which says that pre cancerous tumours and cells may have their growth accelerated if you give them folic acid. Now back 40 years ago they gave folic acid in an experiment to children with leukaemia and they found to their horror that it had increase leukaemia.
PAUL Increased the pace of the growth of leukaemia.
SUE Increased the growth of it. So the question is, if we have new evidence, which has emerged since they signed the standard suggesting that it may increase the rates of pre cancerous - sure the standard can't be so inflexible that you can't take on board new scientist evidence.
KATE Yes we have to be, but we don't need to be alarmist about this, we have to do it based on evidence and science.
SUE Exactly, the best science, the best evidence.
KATE The science is actually light on it. I agree with what the Irish are doing, I'd have to say I agree with what they're doing.
PAUL Well then do it.
KATE That's why I'm doing it - the first opportunity I'm taking it and asking for a review.
PAUL I'm sorry you're gonna put folic acid which may give me prostate cancer again, into my staple food, the bread, and then you're gonna&
SUE And then review it.
PAUL And then review it, so you could be threatening the health of this nation.
KATE The science is light on the risks.
SUE You may say it's light but it's not light, it's not trivial to say that it could cause pre cancerous tumours and cells to grow, and it is sufficiently serious that Ireland and the UK have put it on hold, they did exactly what we did, the United States and Canada made those decisions two years ago.
KATE United States and Canada have had mandatory fortification for many years.
PAUL But a choice don't they, they have a choice.
KATE No, it's mandatory.
SUE Yes but they don't only enrich bread, not all bread as we're proposing.
KATE Except organic bread.
PAUL The bakers are offering you a choice, a range of folic acid bread and a range of non folic acid bread, why not take it, you're looking at a daft law, a daft situation, we appear to have lost our food sovereignty to Australia and you cannot guarantee that this is going to be 100% safe.
KATE It is safe, the evidence says that it is safe.
SUE Minister you cannot guarantee it. The thing is how could this Food Standards Agency not be prepared as Ireland the UK are to take on board new science, how could they not say, hang on a minute since we made our decision four years ago, new evidence has emerged, this is quite serious evidence, there's new data coming out at the end of this year, let's put it on hold till then, and you know Paul this issue has never been debated in our parliament, New Zealanders have never been able to be consulted on it.
KATE Yes that's a travesty, it's a travesty, I agree that that's a travesty.
SUE If you're going to medicate, it is sort of a form of mass medication, if you're going to add synthetic folate to virtually every loaf of bread.
PAUL &.in breach of the Bill of Rights because it is forbidden to compel people to take medication, you could say that's a staple food, so you know I'm being compelled, but listen aren't you just scaremongering, I mean many places around the world have folic acid in the bread, there are some advantages to folic acid.
SUE One of the folic acid experts, Professor David Smith, was saying recently that if the Americans.
PAUL Where is he?
SUE I think he's an expert from the UK.
PAUL He's Oxford I think yeah.
SUE But he is saying that if the Americans knew now what we know now, he believes they would not have introduced mandatory fortification there, and the trouble is they also in Chile, in America and Canada, where they have introduced it in a mandatory basis, they've now noticed significant increases particularly in bowel cancer, so there is epidemiological evidence as well.
KATE If you drill down into those studies though you'll find that they're not that qualitative or quantitative and it is a bit light. Now if we can get a review through the Ministerial Council it'll be done in three months.
PAUL Oh so we have three months of possible poisoning.
SUE So the bakers have to go through - I mean there's a huge effort for the bakers, they've gotta do this whole switch over.
PAUL They also got to dump millions of plastic bags.
SUE Millions of plastic bags and then to switch over.
KATE It's a cost to them.
SUE Paul there is another issue. Wholemeal bread has folate in it naturally, it was exempted in America, and when the British were proposing to introduce said well let's exempt all wholemeal bread, but we're proposing to put folate in wholemeal bread, in all bread, everything except organic bread, what is the logic of that?
KATE We are left with a Labour legacy.
SUE You now are in power.
PAUL You've got the power that's right, that's what elections are held for to change things, why don't you stand up for the people and turn on your officials and tell them we don't want to do this.
KATE Because Paul I believe in abiding by the rules. Because you don't like the outcome doesn't mean to say that you change the process. We have to abide by the rules, we have to do it within the system, within the joint regulatory system, and we're doing it.
SUE I can't imagine the Australians would abide by the rules if they decided they didn't like the decision.
PAUL Another aspect of this, I understand you're worried about diplomatic troubles between New Zealand and Australia if you do this, is that correct?
KATE Well no, I'm working the joint regime which we're bound by and which we agreed to in 1995.
PAUL What about what we're gonna have on the bread and butter, do you think there's gonna be a diplomatic incident about that? I mean Kevin Rudd would probably be upset if we pulled out of East Timor. Well they haven't taken our apples for about 75 years and I seem to remember in the mid 90s one Friday afternoon Maurice Williamson got a fax from his Transport Minister cohort in Australia Laurie Breerton saying we're abandoning the single aviation market.
SUE And we pulled out of country of origin labelling joint standard, New Zealand did without creating&
KATE No we didn't opt into it, and that's different.
PAUL Okay let me just summarise your position. You don't like it.
KATE No I don't like it.
PAUL You feel it's been left to you and it's a Labour legacy bla bla bla.
PAUL It's due to come in in six weeks in September.
PAUL There is real scientific concern growing about folic acid.
KATE No, there's light science on that.
PAUL Enough for the Irish and the British to put plans on hold until there's new evidence.
SUE They've set up expert panels to review it.
PAUL So you will bring in the folic acid in the bread and then begin to review it in October with the Australians?
KATE I'm working within - yeah I'm working with the regime.
PAUL Do you think the public of New Zealand accept that as responsible action by a Minister of New Zealand?
KATE Well I think that you have to be careful that you don't scaremonger and are too alarmist. There is no risk&
PAUL Forgive me Minister, I read yesterday in researching this that is some link between excessive folic acid and prostate cancer.
SUE That is right.
PAUL And you are gonna put that in my bread?
SUE But Paul it's the stupidity of this, that the Minister accepts there are these health risks.
KATE Yes she does.
SUE But she's saying we have to do it so we're eating up for Australia, we're going to be forced because of some trade relationship with Australia, surely we should put - public health issues should be paramount, not some diplomatic relationship.
PAUL Have you discussed this with - Michael Butler's your corresponding Minister in Australia is he?
KATE It was Jan McCluther so I haven't met Michael Butler but she's stood down, I have discussed it with her yes, I brought it up at the May Ministerial Council Meeting.
PAUL Why not just phone the Minister and say this is dopey?
SUE I mean we just want to delay it.
KATE They don't have a Minister, just an Under Secretary at the moment.
SUE Minister, we can't opt out or vary it at this late stage, but surely we can delay it, and can you explain to me - are you telling me if new serious scientific evidence emerges that it could cause pre cancer da-da-da, you cannot, your body cannot take that on board&
KATE The science on the risks is light.
SUE Not light enough for Ireland and England.
PAUL It's sufficient for the Irish and the British, and the Irish committee that recommended they go on hold is the very committee set up to implement the folic acid business.
KATE But they didn't have a standard in place did they, we've got a standard in place.
PAUL You keep talking about standards and rules.
SUE No no but they did Paul, they made their decision in 2007, the Irish and the UK, they made it, we're gonna bring it in, just as we did, and then they saw the new evidence and they said hang on a minute let's pause and they said new data is coming out. Well our lot should be doing the same.
PAUL Yes, I mean people watching might well wonder why you're not standing up for New Zealanders health if there are these concerns, how much have you tried to get through to the Australian government about this, have you had like telephone calls&?
KATE Well certainly our Minister of Foreign Affairs and our Prime Minister have spoken to the Minister of Foreign Affairs over there.
PAUL Do the Australians have similar concerns?
KATE Well they don't seem to be having the same concerns that we do, no.
PAUL Why not?
KATE Because the science is deemed to be too light over there.
PAUL But again Minister I go back to this you might have inherited it&
KATE And their standard is different because they're putting it in all flour, so it goes in pastries as well.
SUE So they've got a different standard, so let them go ahead with their standard and we'll pull with ours.
PAUL There are so many other concerns as well, Bill English last year said you know we've got a big challenge, it's gonna be a challenge to roll back the nanny state but we'll meet that challenge. How is this &?
KATE That is a challenge and I'm trying to meet it.
SUE But you're not, your denying that you can do it.
KATE Have you read the Food Act, because you've obviously read one section of it but not the other sections. Subject to Section 11E so I am constrained by the laws and it doesn't set a good example if just because we don't like a decision we decide to break the law.
PAUL Well if the law is an ass.
KATE Well then you either change the law or you work within it.
PAUL Let's rock 'n roll.
KATE But we always had the choice to opt out of a standard so we still can't make our own choices.
SUE But if there is new compelling science surely it can't be too late. I mean New Zealanders will be outraged that all we're doing is putting Australian diplomacy &
PAUL I know that you've met with the grocers, and Catherine Rich of course is representing the grocers, she has no doubt at all that the Minister may at any time amend or revoke any food standard. In her view you can do it.
KATE Yes that's right, but I can't because she hasn't ready Sections 11 to F of the Food Act.
SUE She can't do it without getting off side with Australia.
KATE Because there's a proviso in that section and she hasn't read the proviso and maybe she doesn't understand what a proviso means but I am still required to act within the conditions of the Food Act.
PAUL Okay, so the folic acid goes in in September, you will review it?
KATE I'm seeking a review yes.
PAUL Will you get it?
KATE I hope so.
SUE I'd say the bakers will be outraged, as will ordinary New Zealanders, never had an opportunity to debate this in our parliament or to be consulted on, and suddenly it turns up in all of our bread.
PAUL Thank you both very much, Kate Wilkinson Food Standards Minister, and Greens Sue Kedgley thank you.