Ministers revealed their intentions as the Government launched a 12-week public consultation looking into the types of products that should be included.
“We all want to give our children the best start in life and a birth defect diagnosis is devastating for parents,” said public health minister Seema Kennedy
“The simple measure of adding folic acid to flour would help spare hundreds of families from such a life-changing event.
“Women from the poorest areas are less likely to take folic acid supplements and it is right that we do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in society.”
Folic acid or vitamin B deficiency amongst mothers-to-be is strongly linked to ‘neural tube defects’ with babies being born with brain, spine and spinal cord problems.
The UK ‘s previous stance on folic acid fortification is in stark contrast to 60 countries worldwide that now add folic acid to their flour, including Australia, Canada and the US.
Closer to home, Switzerland practices voluntarily fortification with folic acid as it is applied to approximately 250 food products.
At one point Ireland’s voluntary fortification of foods with folic acid was widespread but the number of fortified foods is declining along with the increasing incidences of birth defects of the brain and spine.
News of the Government’s plans, which extend to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, was met with a seal of approval from the spina bifida charity, Shine.
It’s chief executive Kate Steele, said, “Shine is delighted that the consultation on how mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid will be introduced in the UK has now been launched.
“After more than 25 years of campaigning for this, we look forward to the day that mandatory fortification with folic acid finally becomes a reality.
“Its introduction will change many lives for the better by reducing the incidence of anencephaly and spina bifida. This relatively simple step will give new babies and children, and their families, the chance of happier, healthier lives.”
Other words of congratulations came from Neena Modi, professor of neonatal medicine at Imperial College London, who tweeted:
Well done @SHINEUKCharity with whom @medicalwomenuk@BAPM_Official & others partnered to push this consultation on folic acid fortification. #UK lags behind many countries by not yet introducing this effective prevention against devastating neural tube defects @DHSCgovukhttps://t.co/1RW5Nvy3Pl— Neena Modi (@NeenaModi1) June 13, 2019
‘An important step’
Geoff Ogle, chief executive of Food Standards Scotland, said, “Food Standards Scotland welcomes the launch of the UK-wide consultation on the mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.
“We, along with the Scottish Government, have long recommended that flour should be fortified with folic acid and limits on other sources of dietary folic acid introduced.
“We know that folic acid intake among people in Scotland remains low, so this is an important step in improving public health and, in particular, reducing the number of babies born with neural tube defects.
“We look forward to considering the outcomes of the consultation.”
The UK is thought to have the highest rate of Neural Tube Defects (NTD) recorded in Europe with one study noting its prevalence from 1991 to 2012 to be 1.28 (95% CI 1.24 to 1.31) per 1000 total births (19% live births, 81% terminations and 0.5% stillbirths and foetal deaths less than 20 weeks’ gestation).
The UK’s department of Health recommends 400 micrograms (µg) of folic acid each day – ideally taken from before pregnancy up until the 12th week of pregnancy.
The European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) currently advises a daily supplement of 600 µg/day for pregnant women.
For lactating women, an additional intake of 130 µg/day is considered to cover folate losses via breast milk.