UK experts are calling for the fortification of folic acid to be made mandatory in order to reduce serious birth defects.

A study, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, says such a move would have prevented around 2,000 UK cases of neural tube defects (NTD) since 1998. NTDs are a group of conditions including spina bifida caused by the failure of the neural tube to close completely during foetal development.

In 1992, the Department of Health (DH) recommended that women take folic acid supplements to reduce the risk of their babies developing NTDs. However, recent research shows only 28% of pregnant women take folic acid supplements at the right time.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recently said it was in favour of folic acid being added to flour.

The USA and 77 other countries already add folic acid to flour by law, with USA experiencing around a 23% drop in pregnancies with NTDs since introducing the policy. In Chile, where the amount of fortification is even higher, levels have falled 36% since 1998.

The research team, led by Professor Joan Morris of the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: “It is a public health failure that Britain has not implemented the fortification of flour with folic acid for the prevention of spina bifida and other [neural tube defects].”

Folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, is found naturally in some foods such as green vegetables, nuts and granary bread but it is very difficult for pregnant women to get enough by diet alone.