A peer whose son died with spina bifida has welcomed the Government announcement that folic acid is to be added to flour across the UK in drive to reduce life-threatening spinal conditions in babies.
inisters said adding folic acid to non-wholemeal wheat flour will help prevent around 200 cases of neural tube defects each year – around a fifth of the UK total.
It follows an agreement with the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
DUP peer Lord Nigel Dodds said: “The announcement that folic acid will be added to bread is very welcome and comes after years of campaigning to have this life saving measure introduced throughout the UK.
“As the then Co-Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Folic Acid Fortification in Westminster I worked with others to secure the start of the consultation on folic acid being added to flour in June 2019.
“I am very pleased it has lead to this momentous announcement.
“When in 2019 the government announced it was consulting on this proposal on a UK wide basis it represented the biggest step forward for years.
“Obviously the intervention of the Covid pandemic has held things up but I am absolutely delighted that the Government has secured agreement across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for this to now be commenced.”
The son of Lord Dodds and his wife, Diane Dodds MLA, was born with spina bifida.
Andrew Dodds died in 1998 just before his ninth birthday.
In 1996, a plainclothes RUC officer was shot by the IRA as he guarded Mr Dodds as he visited his son in the Royal Children’s Hospital in Belfast.
“Other major nations have been fortifying flour for many years. The scientific evidence is crystal clear that this move produces significant advantages and will prevent the birth of many babies who otherwise might be born with neural tube defects including spina bifida and anencephaly,” added Lord Dodds.
“It has been the norm in the USA since 1998. Long years of study have shown there are no real side effects.
“Currently women are recommended to take foil acid supplements but research shows that women from poorer areas are less likely to take such supplements and many pregnancies are unplanned.
“So the Government’s decision to proceed and to bring the whole of the UK into line with the rest of the world means this is a truly historic day and will benefit the lives of countless children yet to be born.”
The Government originally consulted on the plan in 2019 and had faced criticism from campaigners for the delay in acting on the proposals.
A shortage of folate (vitamin B9) in the early stages of pregnancy – often before a woman knows she is pregnant – can lead to neural tube defects in the foetus, resulting in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly.
Adding folic acid to flour – and so to bread – has led to falls in the numbers of neural tube defects in countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada – which are around among 80 nations around the world to have adopted the practice.
Manufacturers already add folic acid to products such as breakfast cereals, but the Government says a higher intake is required during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
While the NHS recommends women who could become pregnant or are planning a pregnancy take a folic acid tablet every day, ministers want to increase the overall intake, particularly as around half of all pregnancies are unplanned.
They say that the cost of adding folic acid to flour should be “minimal”. Since the end of the Second World War, flour has been fortified with calcium, iron, niacin and thiamine during milling to support the nation’s health.
Boris Johnson said: “Few things are as important as a baby’s health – and folic acid-fortified flour is a quick, simple win to enhance their development.
“This will give extra peace of mind to parents and families, as well as helping boost the health of adults across the country.”
Health Secretary, Sajid Javid added: “With the safe and taste-free folic acid baked into the national diet, hundreds more babies will be born healthy each year.
“Focusing on preventing life-threatening health issues such as spina bifida, will ensure fewer people will require hospital treatment, and more individuals and families are able to live healthier lives.”
Northern Ireland’s Health Minister, Robin Swann, welcomed that Northern Ireland would be taking part in the initiative.
“The importance of folic acid at pre-conception and during pregnancy is well-evidenced,” he said.
“In Northern Ireland we have a higher incidence of birth defects due to folic acid deficiency, which disproportionately impacts on those living in areas of higher social deprivation. Today’s announcement has the potential to bring significant public health benefits.
“The fortification of flour with folic acid is already an established measure in 80 countries globally. Including in Australia, New Zealand and Canada where there has been a reduction in neural tube defects as a result.”
Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Michael McBride said: “Fortifying flour with folic acid allows all women who could become pregnant to increase their intake of the important nutrient and reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected by a Neural Tube Defect. In the first 12 weeks of pregnancy the neural tube forms the early part of the brain and spine. Not getting enough folate (Vitamin B9) in early pregnancy can lead to neural tube defects and result in spinal conditions such as spina bifida or anencephaly.”