Coalition of Latino and Public Health Organizations Urges FDA to Require Warning Labels on Unfortified Corn Masa Flour Products

Civil rights and advocacy groups petition for warning labels that will help prevent neural birth defects in America’s growing Latino population. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, alongside a coalition of leading public health and Latino organizations, including March of Dimes, Spina Bifida Association, MomsRising, Healthy Food America, First Focus on Children, SER National Inc., Balanced, National Association of Hispanic Federal Executives, Esperanza United, Latino Justice PRLDEF, is filing a Citizen Petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) calling for mandatory warning labels on unfortified corn masa flour and products made with corn masa. The petition aims to protect Latino families from preventable neural tube defects by promoting informed consumer choices and incentivizing the industry to expand fortified options. 

“At UnidosUS, we have worked for more than a decade to address the serious birth defects due to unfortified corn masa products that devastate Latino children and families. Since fortification efforts have been largely ineffective despite the ease and low cost of enriching corn flour, it is time to mandate warning labels to drive industry-wide change. These kinds of labels would not only enable consumers to make informed choices and incentivize companies to do the right thing, but they would also profoundly impact countless lives,” said UnidosUS President and CEO Janet Murguía. 

“We can only wait so long for companies to do the right thing,” said Laura MacCleery, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at UnidosUS. “Half of all pregnancies are unintended, yet consumers are largely unaware of whether a corn masa food product is fortified in a way that reduces the risk of devastating birth defects. All we’re asking for is a straight-forward statement on foods that lack this important ingredient to facilitate informed consumer choice.” 

“Every Latino child deserves a healthy start in life, but the disproportionate rates of neural tube defects in Latino communities are robbing too many of that opportunity,” said Umailla Naeem, Health Policy Analyst at UnidosUS. “As the Latino population grows, so does the urgent need to address this issue. With over half of Hispanic women of reproductive age consuming corn masa foods, requiring warning labels on unfortified products is a crucial step toward enabling informed choices and reducing the risk of devastating birth defects.” 

“March of Dimes is dedicated to ending preventable birth defects while closing the health equity gap and studies show that Hispanic babies suffer from disproportionately high rates of neural tube defects,” said Stacey Y. Brayboy, March of Dimes Senior Vice President, Public Policy & Government Affairs. “These same studies show that the risks of neural tube defects can be significantly reduced when moms consume adequate levels of folic acid either through diet, supplementation or fortified food. For Hispanic moms, corn masa flour is often a staple in their diet, which is why March of Dimes has long -supported its fortification in the food supply. We are pleased to join the citizens petition calling for easy-to-read warning labels to educate families when corn masa flour is not fortified.” 

“For over six decades, SER Jobs for Progress National has been an unwavering advocate for underserved communities, with a particular focus on the Latino community. We believe that every individual should have equal access and opportunities to participate in the socio-economic mainstream, and we understand that limited access to healthy and nutritious food can serve as a barrier to success,” said Ignacio Salazar, President and CEO of SER National. “By ensuring that everyone, especially those in low-income communities, has access to healthy and affordable food, we can help them thrive and reach their full potential. Therefore, SER National stands firmly behind this effort to help Latino families make healthy, informed food purchases and eliminate health disparities harming Latino communities.” 

“Our community is known for its cuisine, which is not only delicious but is a part of our culture. Unfortunately, the food that we love and is widely consumed is made from corn masa which lacks adequate folic acid fortification,” said Lourdes M. Rosado, President and General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “Deficiency of folic acid can have severe repercussions for women that can cause birth defects and other health issues. Which is why LatinoJustice demands that mandatory warning labels be added to masa flour products mentioning the absence of this crucial supplement for proper maternal nutrition.” 

“We are all too familiar with the life-altering impact of spina bifida for both children and their families,” said pediatric neurosurgeons Dr. Jeffrey Blount, who co-founded the Global Alliance for the Prevention of Spina Bifida, and Dr. Michael Feldman. “Spina bifida results in an average lifetime healthcare cost exceeding $700,000, including steep costs for multiple surgeries on babies and infants in the early days and months of life. This disease is highly preventable with sufficient intake of folic acid (vitamin B9). Folic acid fortification of staple foods such as cereal grains has proven to be one of the most impactful public health interventions globally and in the United States, significantly reducing the incidence of this condition. Every prevented case of spina bifida improves the life of a child, benefiting their family and the broader community. This opportunity for children to lead healthy lives should be accessible to all Americans, unrestricted by cultural heritage or dietary preferences.” 

“I was shocked, as a grown woman, to learn only recently that folic acid supplementation is most crucial during the window of pregnancy wherein one might not even know yet that there is a pregnancy to protect,” said Addison Hadley, Miss United States, whose goal this year is to raise awareness and start conversations about the need for folic acid fortification. “I’ve been equally shocked that most of my friends of childbearing age didn’t know this, either. Prevention of neural tube defects aligns perfectly with my personal philosophy that every child has the inherent right to health, wellbeing and success.” 

Dr. Michael Feldman, the pediatric neurosurgery fellow at Children’s of Alabama and a leader in pediatric neurosurgical and policy research, noted: “As pediatric neurosurgeons, we dedicate a significant amount of our clinical time to caring for children affected by spina bifida. Spina bifida is the most common birth defect affecting the nervous system and occurs within the first month of pregnancy before most woman realize they are pregnant. It is also a leading cause of childhood paralysis. These children require life-long neurosurgical care with multiple surgeries throughout their lifetime. These surgeries begin with the repair of their spinal cord open defect or myelomeningocele in the first few days after birth. Subsequently, we treat hydrocephalus (commonly known “water on the brain”) with ventriculoperitoneal shunt placement or other endoscopic procedures. We also perform frequent re-operations on their spina bifida defects to address back pain, loss of leg function, bowel and bladder difficulties, and other neurological changes during childhood. It’s long past time for such tragedies to be met with all the public health tools for prevention that we have.” 

Corn masa flour is a staple ingredient in many traditional Latino foods, consumed by more than half of Hispanic women. However, most corn masa products lack adequate folic acid fortification—a critical nutrient for preventing serious birth defects of the brain and spine. Despite folic acid’s proven benefits, voluntary fortification efforts have failed as companies have not fortified most foods, with just 14% of corn masa flours and 0% of corn tortillas fortified as of 2022. 

The proposed warning labels would alert consumers in both English and Spanish that the product lacks folic acid and that insufficient folic acid increases the risk of neural tube defects. By enabling transparent choices and creating market incentives for companies to fortify corn masa foods, warning labels can drive industry-wide change and meaningfully reduce the unconscionable disparities in rates of birth defects that disproportionately affect Latino babies and families. 

UnidosUS urges the FDA to act swiftly on this petition and prioritize the health of America’s growing Latino population. Requiring mandatory warning labels on unfortified corn masa products represents a commonsense, low-cost solution to a critical public health and equity issue.