Scotland could introduce new controls over the way flour is made to protect unborn babies, the public health minister has confirmed.
Ministers could impose requirements for folic acid to be added to all products made with flour in an effort to prevent birth defects, like spina bifida, amid fears 85 per cent of pregnant women do not get enough of it.
The matter is currently under consideration by the UK government, but the SNP regime in Scotland is concerned over the delay and could “go it alone” north of the Border.
This is likely to mean baking manufacturers change all their products rather than make different versions for Scotland.
Scotland’s Public health minister Maureen Watt said: “We are disappointed that, despite repeated lobbying from a number of sources, there has been no progress at UK level on mandatory fortification of flour with folic acid.
“Low folate levels among pregnant women are one of the chief causes of neural tube defects such as spina bifida. This is a particular concern in some of our more deprived communities, where rates of unplanned pregnancy are higher.
“The Scottish Government has been convinced of the case for mandatory fortification for some time.”
The low levels of folate taken by expectant mothers is a particular concern in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but the Scottish Government still believes a UK-wide approach is the best solution.
But Ms Watt added: “I have recently written again to the UK dovernment to press for a decision on this important issue. I, along with my counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland, will consider how we might progress this should a decision not be forthcoming from the UK Government.”
Folic acid is found naturally in dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli. Last December, a study suggested birth defects in 2,000 babies could have been avoided if the UK had fortified flour in 1998 at the same time as the US. A total of 77 countries around the world currently fortify flour with folic acid.
There are concerns that fortifying flour would lead to some people getting too much folic acid as some foods, including spreads and breakfast cereals, are voluntarily fortified. Government advisers say this would need careful handling.
The Department of Health is the UK government department responsible and says the matter is being considered.
The Food and Drink Federation said: “From a practical point of view, manufacturers would favour a harmonised situation across the UK rather than Scotland ‘going it alone’ on mandatory folic acid fortification.
“Precise implications of such a situation are not yet clear due to ongoing UK government consultation on the Bread and Flour Regulations. If mandatory folic acid fortification is introduced, voluntary practices should be allowed to continue, and FDF members will work with the government to ensure this is done responsibly to prevent the risk of overconsumption.”