A consultation is to be launched next year on mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.
Public Health Minister Steve Brine has today (23 October) announced the government will consider evidence around folic acid fortification as well as the practicality and safety. The news follows reports last week that fortification is set to become mandatory.
Responding to today’s announcement, the Federation of Bakers said the industry has always been responsive to consumer needs and is committed to responding positively.
“The Federation welcomes the government’s announcement today that it will consult on the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in a bid to tackle foetal abnormalities,” said Federation of Bakers director Gordon Polson.
Health ministers in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have backed mandatory fortification of flour as a way to help prevent neural tube birth defects, but the Department of Health has not been supportive of the concept.
Currently, iron, calcium carbonate, thiamin (vitamin B1) and niacin must be added to all wheat flour (except wholemeal flour) at the milling stage of processing flour.
Fortification with folic acid is already supported by the UK’s chief medical officers and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which provides scientific advice on diet and nutrition to the UK governments.
Evidence from SACN has suggested expectant mothers can take folic acid during pregnancy to significantly reduce the risk of foetal abnormalities including spina bifida and anencephaly.
Around 700 to 900 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects each year in the UK, and fortification of flour with folic acid is seen as a way of reaching those with the lowest folate intakes, such as younger women from the most deprived backgrounds.
Women who are trying to become pregnant are advised to take 400 micrograms of folic acid a day before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. However, around half of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned, so many women are missing out on these nutrients early in their pregnancy, say health chiefs.
“All women should be able to access the nutrients they need for a healthy pregnancy and, in turn, reduce the risk of devastating complications,” said Brine.
“We have been listening closely to experts, health charities and medical professionals and we have agreed that now is the right time to explore whether fortification in flour is the right approach for the UK. My priority is to make sure that, if introduced, we are certain it is safe and beneficial for all.”
The consultation will also look at potential risks to other members of the general public, including whether additional folic acid in the diet will mask diagnosis of conditions such as pernicious anaemia, a deficiency in production of red blood cells.
“As with any intervention of this kind, we need to be certain it is also safe, and that means considering what the wider implications would be for the rest of the population who eat flour,” said chief medical officer Professor Dame Sally Davies.
“I am pleased to see the government taking action on this issue and hope to see the wider scientific community feed in their views to this important consultation, which could benefit and improve the lives of many women and babies in this country.”