Many live births and stillbirths each year are estimated to be affected by neural tube defects such as spina bifida, where one or more vertebrae fails to develop. These babies suffer lifelong moderate or severe disabilities and require extensive medical and surgical care.
The other major neural tube defect is anencephaly, in which the affected babies have no brain or top of the skull. They die within days of birth.
CCS, formerly the Crippled Children's Society, has been campaigning for more than a decade for the folate fortification of foods.
Considerable evidence supports the fact that increasing folate intake in pregnancy reduces the risk of birth defects by 70 per cent.
Folate is referred to as folic acid in its synthetic form. It is present in green leafy vegetables and other foods, but women of childbearing age consume only half the recommended amount, therefore the need for supplement tablets.
Folate fortification of foods has been permitted in New Zealand since 1996 and has been added voluntarily to breads, breakfast cereals, and various other products.
However the food agency research in 1998 showed that average folate consumption has undergone only a marginal increase and remained significantly below the required level of 400 micrograms for pregnant women, which is twice the level of the general adult population.
The important reasons are unplanned pregnancies and a lack of knowledge of the benefits of folate.
In Canada, the United States, Indonesia and a number of South American and African countries folate fortification of foods is mandatory. UK and few other European countries have a voluntary system.