The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is considering the possibility of ordering food manufacturers to add folic acid to their products in an effort to reduce the number of babies born with neurological diseases such as spina bifida.

The Agency had ruled out the compulsory addition of folic acid to food in 2002 due to fears that fortification represented a risk to the health of the elderly. Since then, the Science Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) has considered evidence relating to the benefits and risks of fortification. The FSA will consider this fresh data and its recommendations will be presented to the Health Minister in the autumn of 2006.

The decision to make fortification mandatory will raise concerns among some about the erosion of personal liberties. However, it is estimated that the move could reduce the number of babies born with birth defects by as much as 40%. It is hoped that the vitamin would also reduce the number of miscarriages and is thought to combat strokes, heart disease and bone disorders in adults.

In the US, Canada and Chile, the compulsory addition of folic acid to food has reduced the number of babies born with neurological defects by as much as 50%.

The FSA has said that it is considering four options: maintaining the status quo, encouraging women to take supplements and eat folate rich food, encouraging the voluntary fortification of foods or, at the most extreme, implementing mandatory fortification of the most appropriate food vehicle. If such a course were to be followed, it would be the first time since World War II that food manufacturers would be ordered to add nutrients to foods in order to improve the health of the population.

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Gill Fine, Director of Consumer Choice and Dietary Health, Food Standards Agency said: “The Agency is committed to policy making that will benefit people’s health, but it will do this on the basis of weighing up all the available evidence and listening carefully to all views first.”