Consultation launched on adding folic acid to flour to cut birth defects

The Government has launched its consultation on whether folic acid should be added to flour in a bid to cut birth defects.

The 12-week consultation follows years of campaigning by charities including Shine, which represents people with spina bifida.

Pregnant women are currently advised to take a folic acid supplement before conceiving and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy to cut the risk of their baby developing spina bifida or anencephaly, where the majority of the brain never develops.

But some women forget to take the supplement, do not heed the advice or do not discover they are pregnant until it is too late.

Around 1,000 pregnancies are affected by neural tube defects each year in the UK and more than 40% of cases are fatal.

Under the plans to fortify flour, experts predict that around 200 birth defects a year could be prevented.

Public health minister Seema Kennedy said: “We all want to give our children the best start in life and a birth defect diagnosis is devastating for parents.

“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.”

Shine 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.”

Folic acid fortification has been adopted in more than 60 countries worldwide, including Australia, Canada and the US.

In Australia, neural tube defects fell 14% following the mandatory fortification of bread with folic acid.

Professor Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at Public Health England, said: “Nine in 10 UK women aged 16 to 49 have blood folate levels associated with increased risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancy.

“With so many women at increased risk, mandatory fortification of flour is a safe and effective way of reducing this number.”