Folic acid fortification – proposed amendment to Bread and Flour Regulations 1998

England & Wales

Bread is a basic part of the national diet. The availability and cost of bread will be closely monitored as we approach the winter months. Bread is also coming under the scrutiny of The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (“Defra”) as it considers proposals to update and amend The Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 (the “Regulations”). The Bread and Flour Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1998 are separately being updated (not considered here).

Defra published their response to a consultation on the initial proposal (to require the mandatory fortification of non-wholemeal wheat flour with folic acid) in September 2021 and announced an intention to proceed. Non-wholemeal wheat flour is already required to include specific quantities of calcium carbonate, iron, thiamine and niacin. The aim of the proposed amendment to add folic acid is to help prevent neural tube defects in foetuses, with evidence suggesting that dietary intake of folate and blood folate concentration in women can help reduce the risk and number of pregnancies affected. While women are advised to take a folic acid supplement before conception, many pregnancies are unplanned and so fortification is considered a necessary preventative approach (similar to the concept of calcium for healthy bones).

The further consultation covers:

  • Interaction with wider food legislation. Traditionally, the EU does not require the same flour fortification. However, to accommodate the two regimes while the UK was a member of the EU, there was a shared mutual recognition of arrangements for flour from the EU / EEA. Following the UK's exit from the EU, mutual recognition arrangements for flour from EU / EEA member states came to an end. From October 2022, wheat flour imported from the EU and EEA to Great Britain must comply with the Bread and Flour Regulations 1998 fortification requirements. Calls for a review of the regulations subsequently arose due to the disparity between the Regulations and other legislation in respect of fortification. Defra understands that over 90% of the industry are adding nutrients at levels above the minimum required in the Regulations to streamline the production process. This is because under Regulation 1169/2011, flour that is exported to the EU must have a higher nutrient reference value than as set out in the Regulations. It is proposed that the minimum level of added nutrients is raised at a minimum 15% of the NRV per 100g of flour (would involve moving the minimum required level of iron present in flour from 1.65mg to 2.1mg, niacin from 1.6mg to 2.4mg and calcium carbonate from 235- 390mg to 300-390mg per 100g of flour, with the minimum amount of thiamine remaining the same) to ensure consistency and reflect the voluntary position many in the industry have already adopted. It is also proposed that the calcium carbonate composition criteria is removed from the Regulations, to correct misalignment between the Regulations and Regulation 231/2012 on additives (calcium carbonate added to flour would otherwise be required to meet the specification in Regulation 231/2012).
  • Technical considerations e.g., the proposed level at which folic acid should be added to meet public health aims (proposed to be 250 micrograms per 100g of non-wholemeal wheat flour), and a suitable transition period (currently proposed to be 24 months).
  • Scope of the regulations - it is the intention to only capture “common wheat” flour, and therefore flour derived from other grains, such as spelt, would not be captured.
  • Exemptions – proposals including exempting small-scale mills producing less than 500 metric tonnes of flour per annum, and products with minimal flour content (less than 10%).
  • Enforcement – improvement notices are proposed as an initial enforcement option, as opposed to moving straight to criminal sanctions.

If adopted, relabelling will be required as a consequence, as under Regulation 1169/2011 (the Food Information Regulations), fortificants must be shown on the ingredients list.

The consultation notes that over 99% of British households buy bread and one quarter of all groceries in the biggest four supermarkets in the UK contain flour. It is therefore foreseeable that these are the types of products that will be chosen as vehicles for the additional vitamins and minerals that the scientific evidence suggests the population require. Nevertheless, any unilateral fortification of the staple that is bread raises questions regarding consent and the topic of whether consumers should be allowed to make their own choices regarding the food and the nutrients they consume. For some, the proposals are reminiscent of a “nanny state”. For others, including the Real Bread Campaign (who aim to protect bread such as sourdough made on an artisanal basis without chemical raising agents and additives) there are calls for more stringent regulations on bread labelling and marketing among claims of “sourdough” and “sourfaux”. They consider the narrow scope of the consultation, which does not address these aspects, a lost opportunity.

Despite largely appearing to resist seeming a “nanny state”, the new Government position in this regard remains unclear. With the potential to impact many stakeholders in the industry, those affected are encouraged to participate before the consultation closes on 23 November 2022.