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Health: Flour Fortification

Volume 751: debated on Tuesday 21 January 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the public health impact of the current programme of fortifying flour; and whether they have plans to extend the programme.

My Lords, the Government considered the health impact of the current programme of fortifying flour as part of the Red Tape Challenge review of the bread and flour regulations and concluded that it does deliver public health benefits. We are currently considering the case of mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid and will reach a decision when we have considered new data on the folate status of the population due early this year.

I thank the Minister for his Answer but ask him to speed up that review. Is he aware of the major new peer-reviewed research from the Wolfson Institute, which surveyed half a million women over a 10-year period and found out that folic supplementation is going down? It concluded that the current policy is failing and creating health inequalities. We know that now. Is this not a real worry?

My Lords, I am not aware of that study but I shall of course make myself familiar with it. I do not doubt that it will feature in the consideration that we give to this issue, which I can assure the noble Lord we will do as speedily as we can. It is important to say that adding to the list of fortificants would be a major step and we need to be absolutely sure that it is the right one.

My Lords, is it not a fact that in the United States bread is already fortified not only with folic acid, which of course prevents spina bifida in newly born children, but also vitamin D? At present there is a great deal of concern here that none of us is getting enough vitamin D due to the lack of sunlight in winter. Would it not be a good thing for us to have that benefit? Can the Minister also assure me that if this applies to wheat it will cover wholemeal as well as ordinary loaves, as we recommend people to eat those?

On my noble friend’s last question, we are slightly jumping ahead of ourselves because we need to decide on the principle before we decide on which types of wheat might be fortified. However, I recognise my noble friend’s main point. Indeed, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, in recommending mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid, sought to highlight the benefits of fortification as well as the risks. It was a balanced recommendation. We value it and we will look at the advice very closely indeed.

My Lords, what has the Minister’s department made of its evaluation of folic acid fortification in the many countries that have implemented it, including the United States, as has already been mentioned, Canada and Australia? What has been the balance of risk and benefit in those countries?

I am aware that we have looked at the experience of other countries, but, as I am sure the noble Lord will accept, we need to take a decision on this that is right for all of our population rather than another country’s population. That is why we want to make the decision evaluating risks and benefits based on the most up-to-date data of the folate status of our own population.

My Lords, the case for fortifying flour with folic acid is now incontrovertible. It is both safe and effective in preventing spina bifida. I should like to follow up the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, about vitamin D fortification, as there is a rising incidence of rickets in children, particularly Asian children, and we really should take that seriously.

The noble Lord is absolutely right. I agree with him that the incidence of rickets is a cause for concern. At the same time, he characterises the case for mandatory fortification as incontrovertible. There are risks that SACN pointed out. Its advice to government stated that fortification of flour with folic acid might have adverse effects on neurological function in people aged 65 years and over with vitamin B12 deficiency. Treatment with folic acid can alleviate or mask the anaemia and therefore delay the diagnosis of vitamin B12 deficiency, which can lead to irreversible effects.

The noble Earl referred to two things. His immediate answer just now suggested that folic acid levels might interfere with B12 anaemia in older people. That would require a dosage of about 15 milligrams per day; the dosage we are talking about for fortification would hardly reach 1 milligram per day. The risk, therefore, is pretty minimal. Secondly, he suggested in his opening Answer that the folate level of the population might help to devise the policy. How would that help to devise the policy for women in early pregnancy who need the folic acid to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects?

I am sure the noble Lord would agree that we have to take a decision based on the most up-to-date data. The data that we had prior to this were 10 years old and it is important to take a decision in the context of the nutritional state of health of the population. On his first question, all I can say is that the risk to which I referred was considered as part of SACN’s overall assessment and we will draw on that in reaching our decisions on the fortification of flour and give it the appropriate weight that it deserves.

My Lords, on the issue of up-to-date information, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said, we now have the Wolfson study, which actually leads that organisation to recommend that all countries should introduce folic acid fortification. The Government already have the recommendation of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition for mandatory fortification. Yes, it says it should be accompanied by actions to restrict voluntary fortification of food with folic acid for the reasons to which noble Lords have already referred. Why on earth are the Government delaying action on this?

My Lords, I can only repeat what I said before, which was that taking this step would be a major step by any standards. We must base it on a proper assessment of the risks and benefits. We have some excellent advice from SACN and we need to evaluate that advice fully before taking a decision.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the public education campaign has failed and that given that most pregnancies are unplanned and that the risk period for low folate levels is in the first 28 days, before a woman is aware that she is pregnant, there is actually some urgency to act?

My Lords, I recognise the issues raised by the noble Baroness. We will of course take those into account.

My Lords, it is more than 20 years since the MRC study on this issue first had to be abandoned because it was considered inappropriate not to give folic acid supplements to the women who were involved. When the noble Earl reads the latest study, I suggest that he will find it “incontrovertible”, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. The noble Earl said in December that the Government were looking at this issue urgently. Will they now look to act urgently?

My Lords, I give the noble Baroness an assurance that we are treating this with suitable urgency. I cannot give her a date as to when a decision will be announced but it will be as soon as possible.