Australia will go ahead with mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid within weeks, despite a decision by New Zealand to break from bilateral food safety laws and delay it.
Both countries had been due to introduce folic acid in all bread products next month to combat neural tube defects but the NZ Government said it would postpone the move until May 2012.
Public health advocates in WA strongly support mandatory folic acid and blamed a scare campaign for fears in New Zealand that too much folate could cause cancer.
NZ Minister for Food Safety Kate Wilkinson said there was overwhelming evidence that consumers wanted choice on whether their bread was fortified.
A NZ Government survey this year found that 87 per cent of consumers did not want their bread fortified with folic acid.
Ms Wilkinson said she agreed with public health experts that the vitamin folate was beneficial to women and unborn babies but believed an education campaign would adequately address the issue while ensuring consumer choice.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand recommended mandatory fortification in 2006 to help reduce the incidence of neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida. Spokeswoman Lydia Buchtmann said that several years of comprehensive research had shown folic acid was safe.
Curtin University professor of public health Mike Daube, also director of the Public Health Advocacy, said the health benefits of mandatory folic acid were already seen in about 40 countries. He blamed a scare campaign led by the NZ baking industry, which was concerned about added costs, for the delay.
Professor Fiona Stanley, head of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, is a big supporter of folate in food. Professor Stanley, who was not available on Thursday, has previously cited studies that claim higher folate consumption could lower the risk of stroke, cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancers. She estimated that folate fortification would save the health system $120-150 million a year.
However, two peer-reviewed US studies this year linked folic acid in the human diet to higher rates of prostate cancer in men and inflammatory bowel disease in children.
A Dublin City University study suggested that excessive folic acid could increase the risk of prostate cancer and let other cancers grow.
The WA Health Department would not comment on Thursday but confirmed that folic acid would be added to baking flour from September 13.