a1 Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Abbey Court, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1, Republic of Ireland
Adequate intake of folic acid by women during very early pregnancy can markedly reduce risk of the development of neural-tube defects (NTD). The effectiveness of advice to women to take folic acid supplements is limited, mainly because 50% of pregnancies are unplanned. However, mandatory folic acid food fortification programmes in North America have been very successful in reducing NTD rates. In Ireland higher rates of pregnancies are affected by NTD and the option of termination is illegal. Consequently, the much higher burden of disease makes primary prevention of NTD an important public health issue in Ireland. During 2006 a decision was taken in Ireland to initiate mandatory folic acid fortification of most bread to prevent NTD. Priority work was immediately undertaken to establish reliable and comprehensive baseline information on factors that will be affected by fortification. This information included data on: the national prevalence of pregnancies affected by NTD; the current extent of voluntary folic acid fortification of food on the Irish market and how it affects folic acid intakes; blood folate status indicators assessed for various subgroups of the Irish population. In addition, scientific developments that have arisen since 2006 relating to the risks and benefits of folic acid intake are under ongoing review. The present paper summarises the rationale for mandatory folic acid food fortification in Ireland and recent scientific developments relating to risks and benefits of folic acid intake. In this context, preliminary findings of baseline monitoring investigations in Ireland are considered.