All flour will be fortified with folic acid to prevent hundreds of babies being born with defects, it was reported last night.
Downing Street is understood to have backed the measure following a long-running campaign by doctors and baby health campaigners.
But critics warned the ‘mass medication’ of bread without the population’s consent was an invasion of their human rights.
Ministers are expected to announce the policy in weeks after advisers reportedly convinced them it would reduce the risk of babies suffering so-called ‘neural-tube defects’ such as spina bifida and other conditions that lead to severe disability or death.
The move is a significant U-turn as ministers in successive governments have ignored repeated pleas on the issue.
A key official said Theresa May, who was opposed, had been persuaded to change her mind, The Guardian reported.
Medical groups and health charities welcomed the decision to instruct flour makers to start adding folic acid to products.
Kate Steele, of the charity Shine, which helps families affected by neural-tube defects, said: ‘Mandatory fortification will be a game-changer. It will mean a major positive impact for the health and well-being of babies born in the future. In many cases, it will be the difference between life and death.’
Fortification is already used in more than 80 countries. In the US, there has been an estimated 23 per cent drop in neural-tube defects since the policy started in 1998. Taking enough folic acid in pregnancy is thought to cut the risk of a baby suffering a neural-tube defect by up to 70 per cent.