Medics have long called for the move, saying that it could reduce the incidence of conditions such as spina bifida, when a baby’s spine and spinal cord don’t develop properly in the womb, causing damage to the nervous system.
Pregnant women, and those trying to conceive, are urged by health officials to take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid, at least until the 12th week of pregnancy. But many women do not, especially if a pregnancy is unplanned and they are unaware they are expecting. The NHS Choices website says folic acid is important to foetus growth and can significantly reduce the risk of neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
Ministers have reportedly backed a plan to fortify flour with folic acid, which already happens in more than 80 countries. It has previously been recommended that wheat flour is fortified with folic acid to improve the “folate status” of the population and reduce the risk of these birth defects.
The policy is expected to be introduced within weeks.
Kate Steele, chief executive of the charity Shine, which helps families affected by neural tube defects, said the move “will be a game-changer”.
She said: “A government decision to introduce mandatory fortification will mean a major positive impact for the health and wellbeing of babies born in the future. In many cases, it will be the difference between life and death.”
Clare Murphy, director of external affairs at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said: “The UK has one of the highest rates of neural tube defects in Europe. Around 1,000 pregnancies are affected every year, and the vast majority will end in the painful decision to terminate what is often a very much wanted pregnancy.
“Most fetal anomalies sadly are not preventable, but those related to folic acid deficiency can be reduced.
“Folic acid fortification is a straightforward public health intervention which will spare hundreds of women the heartbreak of receiving the news that their baby has a serious condition.”
Clare Livingstone, professional policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “Many pregnancies are not planned, meaning many women will not have taken folic acid around the time of conception and very early in their pregnancy. This is when folic acid is most effective and that is why this announcement, if correct, is so important.”