Home » California’s tortilla bill threatens to flatten small businesses

California’s tortilla bill threatens to flatten small businesses

California famously became the first state to ban foie gras in 2004. Now, the Golden State is targeting another culinary tradition: the handmade tortilla. A new bill in Sacramento, if passed, would mandate adding folic acid to corn masa flour. Pushed under the auspices of public health, the costs of this well-intentioned idea—as always—will disproportionately fall on small businesses. 

Assembly Bill 1830, introduced by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D–Fresno), would require all masa manufacturers to fortify their products with folic acid. This will affect producers of tortillas, as well as producers of pupusas, tamales, and taco shells, to name just a few. 

The rationale is based on research showing that the ingestion of folic acid by women of reproductive age can reduce neural tube birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly. 

Since 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has mandated folic acid fortification in enriched flours, which has resulted in a 35 percent reduction in neural tube birth defects, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the FDA mandate does not apply to unenriched grain or corn masa flour. Evidence suggests that Latina mothers have lower folic acid intake than other demographics, resulting in higher rates of birth defects. California Department of Public Health data show only 28 percent of Latinas reported taking folic acid before pregnancy, compared to 46 percent of white women. A 2009 CDC study suggested that mandatory fortification of masa could boost folic acid intake by up to 20 percent among Mexican Americans. 

In 2016, the FDA implemented rules that allowed producers of masa flour to voluntarily add folic acid to their products. A 2023 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that only 14 percent of masa products contained folic acid, prompting calls for mandatory fortification. 

Earlier this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra held a roundtable on the topic of corn masa fortification—an event that was predominantly attended by trade associations and megaretailers—signaling that the federal government may be getting ready to make a move. In the meantime, California lawmakers have decided to move forward with their own mandate.

The costs of government mandates always fall most heavily on small businesses and entrepreneurs. Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano reports that small-batch tortilla makers—like La Princesita Tortilleria in East Los Angeles—are starting to panic. La Princesita uses the nixtamalization method (involving only corn masa, water, and lime), a culinary heritage that dates back millennia.

Arellano, who likens the taste of mass-produced corn tortillas found in most grocery stores to “the lickable part of an envelope,” conducted a blind taste test of La Princesita’s traditional tortillas alongside the same tortillas with folic acid. He immediately tasted the difference, with the folic acid version having a distinct but unidentifiable lingering taste, as well as a more rubbery texture while being chewed. La Princesita ran the same test with its employees, who concurred in the inferior taste—not to mention color—of the folic acid version.

“The danger is that tortilla makers who make it the traditional way lose their market advantage over others,” Arellano wrote in an email exchange. “That would definitely have an impact on their bottom line, but even worse is the cultural impact. Imagine you practice a foodways that goes back thousands of years, then [are] told by the government you can’t do it anymore? Cultural imperialism at its worst!”

Few dispute the public health benefits of preventing birth defects, but whether folic acid fortification of masa is the best solution is debatable. Neither the U.S. nor California requires folic acid to be added to unenriched flour, underscoring the arbitrary nature of this mandate. Artisanal bakeries using heirloom grain in the Golden State—which are often frequented by gentrifying hipsters, and other high-income demographics—are effectively exempted from worrying about folic acid fortification at all. 

Arellano argues that targeting masa is presumptive, given that studies have shown Latinos in the U.S. consume more flour tortillas, which are already fortified, than corn tortillas. “If the bill wants to truly tackle health inequities,” Arellano says, “they would take a holistic approach, not one so arbitrarily—and stereotypically—narrow.”

Alternatives to masa flour fortification exist. It could also be added to salt (not that that should be mandated either), which is already a long-established vehicle for iodine and iron fortification. There could also be more public education on the importance of folic acid for pregnant mothers, along with encouraging women of reproductive age to consider eating more foods rich in folic acid or taking Vitamin B9 supplements. 

For their part, East Los Angeles tortilla makers are advocating for an exemption for restaurants or small-batch producers. Lawmakers could also consider exemptions for producers below a certain threshold, leaving the mandate compliance and costs to Big Tortilla. La Princesita would even settle for being permitted to make a specific product line of tortillas with folic acid, while also maintaining a line of its original-recipe tortillas. But at least so far, California lawmakers don’t seem inclined to #SaveTheTortilla.


June 2024