CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) on Sept. 13 began mandating that bread-making flour in Australia must have folic acid, a form of the B vitamin folate that has been shown to reduce the risk of babies being born with birth defects.

A neural tube defect like spina bifida occurs in about 300 to 350 pregnancies a year in Australia, said Paul Brent, chief scientist for FSANZ. The mandatory addition of folic acid to flour is expected to reduce the number by up to 14%. More than 80% of women of child-bearing age in Australia eat bread, and on average they eat about two slices per day.

"As it isn’t possible for women to consume enough folic acid from a well-balanced diet, we have now made the addition of folic acid compulsory to bread-making flour," Dr. Brent said. "The only exception is organic flour, which is not required to contain folic acid because of the rules about organic food."

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued the mandate of folic acid fortification to enriched flour in 1998, neural tube defects have declined by 26%, according to the March of Dimes.