The UK government is consulting on plans to introduce mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid in the UK help prevent neural tube defects in foetuses.

The launch of the 12-week consultation follows years of campaigns urging the Government to make the fortification of flour mandatory.

Neural tube defects, such as spina bifida (abnormal development of the spine) and anencephaly, which affects the brain, affect about 1,000 pregnancies per year in the UK. Over 40% of cases are fatal. Most babies who survive will need continuing care.

There is strong evidence that many neural tube defects can be prevented by increasing women’s intake of folic acid.

Women trying to become pregnant are already advised to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid before they conceive and during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. But about half of pregnancies are unplanned, and women are not always aware they should take the supplement – or forget to.

Fortification is seen as the most effective way of reaching women with the lowest intakes, typically younger woman from deprived areas. 

Mandatory fortification would mean everybody who ate foods such as bread would get more folic acid, but scientists have advised the government the recommended level is safe.

More than 60 countries already add folic acid to flour. When Canada introduced mandatory fortification, in the late 1990s, neural tube defects halved. And when the same change was made in Australia, neural tube defects fell by 14%.

UK milled wheat flour already has the vitamins thiamine and niacin as well as iron and calcium added.