The UK government has launched a consultation into whether folic acid should be added to flour to prevent birth defects. Medical experts have been calling for the UK to fortify bread flour for years, following the lead of 80 other countries that have started adding the essential vitamin that can prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Women are encouraged to take folic acid in supplement form before conceiving and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, but many neglect to do so, either because they forget or are not aware they should. Neural tube defects are thought to affect roughly 1,000 pregnancies each year in the UK and more than 40 per cent of cases are fatal.
The 12-week consultation, which was first alluded to in October last year, will see health departments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales ask people for their views on the prospect of adding folic acid to flour. Public health minister Seema Kennedy says of the consultation: “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.” Kennedy added that women from poor areas are least likely to take folic acid supplements and that fortifying flour would “protect the most vulnerable in society”.
According to the NHS, spina bifida occurs when a baby’s spine and spinal cord don’t develop fully in the womb, causing a gap in the spine. The charity Shine, which provides support for children managing spina bifida, has been campaigning for mandatory fortification for 25 years.“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,” said Kate Steele, the charity’s chief executive. “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.”