Eminent scientist Professor Colin Blakemore, chairman of the General Advisory Committee on Science (GACS), which advises the Food Standards Agency (FSA), criticised successive health ministers and the Department of Health (DoH) for failing to respond to recommendations originally proposed by SACN in 2005.
The delays in implementing fortification had led to hundreds of unnecessary cases of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in babies since the advice had first been issued, claimed Blakemore.
SACN’s recommendations were subsequently endorsed by the FSA, which submitted its advice to health ministers in 2007.
However, no response had been received by the time the FSA’s responsibility for nutrition in England was transferred to the DoH in October 2010. That was one of Andrew Lansley’s first major decisions as health secretary following the coalition’s success in the May general election. The FSA retained responsibility for nutrition and health in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
“What we’ve not had is a formal response to the advice,” said FSA chief scientist Dr Andrew Wadge.
Some of the delay can be attributed to further concerns being raised after the advice had been submitted about a potential link between folic acid fortification and colorectal cancer. But these were not sufficient for SACN or the FSA to change their advice, said Wadge. Even before this, there had been other concerns that folic acid might mask vitamin B12 deficiency in some elderly people.
No reason to delay
However, these concerns had all long since been dispelled by various studies, including new research emerging from the US, said Blakemore. As a consequence there was no reason to delay fortification in this country, he added.
“There is reason to believe there is significant new evidence that was not considered,” said Blakemore. “We as a committee wish to express our concern that a recommendation was made but it seems to have gone into a black hole.”
Blakemore said he would write to the FSA chair Jeff Rooker in advance of its Board meeting next Tuesday [March 20] to raise GACS’s concerns. Wadge also agreed to raise the issue.
Blakemore’s comments followed a presentation by SACN member Peter Aggett, honorary professor in the School of Medicine and Health at Lancaster University, at the FSA’s headquarters on March 14. Aggett reported that a decision on folic acid fortification by the DH was “currently in abeyance” until further research on its safety was published.
He was speaking in place of SACN chair Dr Ann Prentice, director of the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research centre in Cambridge, who was unable to be at the meeting.