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Health: Birth Defects

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current approach to reducing the number of children born with neural tube defects; and whether they will consider fortifying white bread flour with folic acid as an additional measure.

My Lords, we encourage women to plan pregnancies, and advise those seeking to become pregnant to take folic acid supplements before conception and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and to increase their intake of folate-rich foods. We are considering our nutrition advisers’ full recommendation to fortify flour with folic acid and will take into account new data on the folate status of the population in reaching our decision.

My Lords, given that folic supplementation needs to be taken before most women know that they are pregnant, is the Minister concerned that less than 6% of 20 year-olds actually take folic supplements? The follow-up research published earlier this year is now available—on top of the scientific advice that the Government received in 2007 from independent committees and the Food Standards Agency—and shows that putting folic acid in flour causes no side effects for males. Is it not therefore time to change policy and put folic acid in white bread flour, which the BMA says is the most cost-effective way of avoiding the misery of hundreds of affected pregnancies, and to join 50 other countries that are doing the same?

My Lords, mandatory fortification of food is, by any standards, a big step; it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The issue that we have been facing is that the survey data used by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is more than 10 years old. The latest data available on the folate status of the population will be available early next year, and we feel that it is prudent to use that information to assess the risks and benefits of fortifying flour with folic acid before we make our decision.

My Lords, international academic research since 2005 has shown that including folic acid in bread and cereal products is important and that it reduces neural tube defects by between a quarter and a half, so it undoubtedly helps raise the levels of folic acid in women before and during pregnancy. However, it is not at the level that would remove all possibility of NTDs. Research says that folic acid supplements are recommended, too. What will the Government do to alert women who are thinking about having a baby to take supplements before becoming pregnant?

My Lords, we recognise that some women do not always access maternity services early or attend regularly for antenatal care, and that poorer outcomes are therefore reported in some cases for mother and baby. Maternity services need to be proactive in engaging all women. To help reduce variation and improve services, NICE has published a comprehensive suite of evidence-based clinical guidelines and quality standards for maternity services. We are also promoting the taking of folic acid supplements through a number of channels including Healthy Start, NHS Choices, Start4Life, and the Information Service for Parents.

My Lords, what do the Government think are the contraindications for fortifications of flour with folic acid, knowing that the evidence shows that it would cause a reduction of about 300 in the number of babies born with neural tube defects?

My Lords, I recognise the opinion that is shared among many members of the medical community on this. However, the advice we received from SACN, our expert adviser, clearly showed that there are risks and benefits associated with this proposal. It is not an open-and-shut case. Among the things that we have had to consider are the practical implications of implementing SACN’s advice, which is no small matter.

My Lords, does the noble Earl not recognise that in fact the scientific committee he referred to has looked at the issue that he raised and has upheld its previous recommendation that the Government should go ahead? Some 50 countries have already done that; the scientific advice is clear; why on earth are the Government not getting on with it?

My Lords, as I said, SACN’s recommendations highlighted both the risks and the benefits of this proposal—and I certainly acknowledge that there would be benefits. However, there are also implications. For example, SACN recommended that mandatory fortification should proceed only if accompanied by:

“Action to restrict voluntary fortification of foods with folic acid; measures for careful monitoring of emerging evidence on any adverse effects of long-term exposure to intakes of folic acid … and guidance on supplement use for particular population groups”.

We have to take those recommendations into account before taking any long-term decision.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of a recent publication that suggests that folic acid deficiency in men, too, may lead to birth defects in their offspring? Is this not another good reason for fortifying flour?

My Lords, I am sure that that evidence will be taken into account when we take the decision, as we hope to do next year.

My Lords, the Minister said that this was not a decision to be taken lightly, and that is absolutely right, but we now have the experience of 50 other countries. We have had scientific evidence on this issue for many years. The fortification of white bread flour is a targeted measure that could significantly reduce the number of pregnancies, not just births, that involve neural tube defects, and thus prevent a great deal of unnecessary and painful suffering. Will the Minister undertake to look at this matter again as a matter of urgency?

My Lords, we are looking at this as a matter of urgency. I recognise what the noble Baroness says about the experience of other countries, but we must make policy in relation to the population of our own country, and that involves weighing up both the potential benefits and the potential downsides of any policy.