While it's obvious that the New Zealand Food Safety Authority works to keep our food supply safe from chemical and microbiological hazards, it may be surprising to learn that we also work to manage nutrient-related hazards. A nutrient can become a food safety hazard when people get too much of some nutrients and not enough of others.
A recent nutrition-related hazard NZFSA has started working on - as part of our overarching Nutrition Strategy - is vitamin D. Our primary source of vitamin D is through skin exposure to sunlight. However, with the increased focus on people using sunscreen and covering up when they are out in the sun, they may be getting less vitamin D this way than previously.
Other minor sources include natural food sources (such as some dairy products and oily fish), fortified foods and dietary supplements. In New Zealand a range of foods may be voluntarily fortified with vitamin D as defined in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.
Vitamin D status and its association with health risks is a rapidly emerging research area. It has long been known that vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults, however newer research suggests that it may also be associated with other chronic diseases including certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. NZFSA is keeping an active watch on these research developments.
To further advance our work in this area NZFSA recently gathered internationally recognised vitamin D experts at a scientific roundtable discussion to discuss what role - if any - we might play in addressing New Zealanders’ vitamin D status. This roundtable was highly valuable in understanding the complexities of the issues associated with vitamin D status and health, identifying information and data gaps, and looking at areas where there is not consensus among scientists.
NZFSA will be able to fill some of these data gaps but will require broader scientific consensus to be reached on some outstanding issues, such as whether vitamin D sufficiency can be adequately defined, before considering what regulatory or non-regulatory action may be warranted.
If the evidence shows that New Zealanders need more vitamin D, we will work with health authorities to identify and select the most appropriate risk management strategies that could achieve this. We will consult widely before making any decision and as always our priority remains healthy New Zealanders having access to safe food.
Published in Food NZ, December 2010/January 2011