John Mitchell, partner at law firm Blake Morgan, looks at the issues of flour fortification

Flour fortification is by no means a new development in the baking industry, but it now seems likely that, sooner or later, another nutrient may be added to the mandatory list for public health reasons.

Research, published earlier this year in Public Health Reviews, the official journal of the Association of Schools of Health in the European Union, has reignited calls for the government to fortify flour with folic acid, a B vitamin, to help protect babies from common birth defects.

The latest research claims evidence for limiting intake of folic acid to no more than 1mg a day is out-of-date and flawed. Folic acid is already added to flour in more than 80 countries worldwide and, with the idea backed by health ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it seems only a matter of time before the government will be reviewing the UK’s flour fortification laws.

The UK has a long history of regulation for bread and flour, dating back at least 800 years. The Assize of Bread and Ale was a 13th-century law in high medieval England, which regulated the price, weight and quality of the bread. It was the first law in British history to regulate the production and sale of food. The sector is still controlled by the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998, which have their earliest roots in these antiquated decrees.

Flour fortification as we know it became established in the middle of the 20th century. The addition of calcium carbonate became mandatory in 1943 to increase calcium levels in the diet. Throughout the 1940s to the end of food rationing in 1954 the milling of flour up to 80% extraction or higher was required by law in order to make full use of the nutritional value of the wheat grain.

In 1953, the milling requirement was removed and bread could again be made from flour of 70% to 72% extraction. However, it contained lower levels of nutrient found in the germ and outer layers of the grain present in flour of 80% extraction. Regulations were introduced to restore the iron, thiamin and niacin lost in the milling process and continue the addition of calcium. 

The addition of iron, calcium carbonate, thiamin (vitamin B1) and niacin to all wheat flour (except wholemeal flour) is required at the milling stage of processing flour as follows:

  • Calcium carbonate: 235-390 mg/100g flour
  • Iron: not less than 1.65 mg/100g flour
  • Thiamin (Vitamin B1): not less than 0.24 mg/100g flour
  • Nicotinic acid or nicotinamide:   not less than 1.60 mg/100g flour

It is an offence for any person who is a manufacturer of flour to sell flour that does not comply with these requirements and offences are punishable by a fine – although I have no knowledge myself of a fine being imposed in recent times.

The addition of folic acid would be fairly straightforward legally, if not perhaps politically or operationally. It would simply require an amendment to the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 and being passed into statute by the government of the day. Folic acid would be added to flour at the mill and the cost of fortification itself would not be huge. However, there could be considerable additional costs in terms of relabelling foodstuff.

Compliance may be comparatively easy to achieve, given fortification is designed for the good of improving public health and protecting against birth defects in children. It would be difficult, however, to legislate against bakeries that wanted to make non-folic-acid enriched bread and cakes using, for example, a non-fortified flour from France.

Amending the law would not conflict with the EU either. EU legislation already permits the addition of folic acid to food. It is unlikely there would be an issue with exports, at least to the EU, because the crux of EU legislation is to permit the free movement of legally compliant products within the internal market. The impact of Brexit on these arrangements remains to be seen.

The biggest impact of any amendment is likely to be on labelling since the presence of added folic acid will need to be declared in the list of ingredients.

It is fair to say that fortification with folic acid will unlikely be a legal dilemma. The real contention may be winning over public health decision-makers.