Further to the Government's announcement on 23 October 2018 of the intention to consult on the issue of mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid to help prevent neural tube defects in foetuses, I wish to inform the House that the consultation will launch today and will run for 12 weeks.
Neural tube defects are birth defects of the brain, spine, or spinal cord. They happen in the first few weeks of pregnancy, often before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. The two most common neural tube defects are spina bifida and anencephaly. These can be devastating conditions and the Government is fully aware of the effect these have on the individuals themselves and their families.
There is strong evidence that many neural tube defects can be prevented by increasing women’s intake of folic acid
Unless you are pregnant or thinking of having a baby, you should be able to get all the folate (the natural form of folic acid) you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. Existing pregnancy advice to women who are trying to conceive or who are likely to become pregnant is that they are advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid until the 12th week of pregnancy. They are also advised to increase their daily intake of folate by eating more folate-rich foods, for example spinach and broccoli, and foods voluntarily fortified with folic acid such a wide range of breakfast cereals.
However, we know that in the UK around half of pregnancies are unplanned. In those which are planned, it has been estimated that only half of all mothers took folic acid supplements or modified their diet to increase folate intake. This has led to calls for mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid, so women can get it from dietary sources other than foods that naturally contain it.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has recommended mandatory folic acid fortification of flour to improve the folate status of women most at risk of neural tube defect-affected pregnancies. Further detail on this is in the consultation document.
We are now opening a consultation to seek views on this proposed change and we hope that members of the public as well as industry and the scientific community respond so we can accurately consider this proposal.
I have agreed with the Governments of Scotland and Wales, and the Permanent Secretary of Northern Ireland that this will be a joint consultation between the Devolved Administrations and England. This is because any resulting decisions would need to be taken on a whole-UK basis to minimise impact on trade and for industry to comply. Similarly, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been closely involved as flour falls within their remit.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords: