The baking industry is braced for a debate about who picks up the bill, after experts recommended flour be fortified with folic acid this week.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s (SACN’s) recommended on Tuesday that mandatory fortification of flour could cut the risk of birth defects such as spina bifida.

On the same day, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched a consultation on the issue, with four options open to debate - including voluntary measures and mandatory fortification at bread or flour stage. It will make a recommendation to ministers in May 2007, following the consultation.

The SACN view, that flour should be fortified, could become law in around May 2008, if backed by the FSA after its consultation.

Federation of Bakers’ director Gordon Polson said that if the government did decide to make fortification mandatory it should be done at the milling stage.

There were a number of implementation and labelling issues to consider, he said. For example, should fortification be made mandatory through the Bread and Flour Regulations? And should wholemeal or organic flour be covered in any legislation?

He said: "There will be cost discussions. How does government plan to meet the costs? Industry should not have to pay for this."

The FSA may still decide to go for a campaign to raise awareness of folic intake, rather than back mandatory fortification, Polson said, but conceded the SACN committee decision did carry weight.

National Association of British And Irish Millers’ director general Alex Waugh said millers currently add calcium, iron, thiamine (B1) and niacin to white and brown bread flour, under the 1998 Bread and Flour Regulations.

The simplest solution would be to add folic acid at the same time, he said. But if folic acid had to be added to other flours the situation would be more complicated.

There was a possibility that extra feeders and an extra mixing stage would be required. The industry would not be willing to pay these costs, he added.

The outcome of this consultation will be discussed at the FSA Board meeting in May. The SACN first recommended folic acid be added to flour in 2000, but the government wanted more evidence to support the suggestion.