However the kerfuffle over the Food and Drug Administration’s handling of Vegemite pans out, my passionate Australian colleague Sallie James is right to be suspicious. The FDA’s record regarding folic acid has been anything but sensible – or humane. As I wrote in 1998:
[I]n 1992, the federal Public Health Service (PHS) recommended [that] all women of childbearing age consume 0.4mg of folic acid daily. The PHS estimated this could lead to a reduction in spina bifida, a crippling birth defect that partially exposes the infant’s spinal cord through a hole in the backbone, of about 50 percent (i.e., about 1,250 cases per year).
However, the FDA would not let producers of foods rich in folic acid (oranges, leafy green vegetables, etc.) inform expectant mothers of this preventive medicine until 1996. From PHS estimates, it may be reasonably postulated that the FDA’s four-year suppression of this health claim caused as many as 5,000 infants to be unnecessarily stricken with spina bifida.
The federal government itself recommended that women of childbearing age consume more folic acid, yet the FDA refused to let food manufacturers get the word out for four years. As if to shine a beacon on its prior stupidity, in 1998 the FDA required manufacturers to fortify enriched cereal grain products with folic acid.
If the FDA can tolerate 5,000 preventable cases of spina bifida, it’s reasonable to conclude that the agency wouldn’t bat an eye over severing one’s emotionally crucial link to the motherland.
That is, unless Australians have a more powerful lobby than newborns do.