Expectant mothers who take multi-vitamin supplements could be causing handicaps in their unborn children, it has emerged.
A study by Trading Standards watchdogs and charity BDF (Birth Defects Foundation) Newlife has found that a third of all multi-vitamin suppliers do not label their products with warnings stating that they contain vitamin A, which can damage foetuses.
The fear is that many women, pregnant or planning to be, are being misled by inadequate labelling.
They may be these supplements in the hope it will benefit the health of their unborn children.
In reality, they risk unwittingly taking vitamin A, which can lead to horrific health defects.
BDF Newlife chief executive, Sheila Brown, said the risks of vitamin A to foetuses are well-known.
She said the issue now was for women to steer clear of multi-vitamin supplements too, until they have made sure they do not contain vitamin A.
"Our big message to women of child-bearing age is to look at the packet and to avoid vitamin A like the plague," she said.
"Lots of products do not have warnings and they should have."
Damages development of cells
Vitamin A, present in liver, is a "teratogen", which damages the development of cells in foetuses, leading to the developments of conditions like spina bifida, hydrocephalus and urinary tract malformations.
The damage is usually done in the first few days or weeks of a pregnancy.
Mrs Brown said she asked Trading Standards to investigate after a pregnant woman contacted BDF Newlife after realising she had been unwittingly taking a multi-vitamin supplement which contained vitamin A. The product did not carry a warning. The woman realised she had been taking vitamin A after her doctor pointed it out.
Nigel Strick, boss of Oxfordshire Trading Standards, said that between November last year and March this year, 20 out of 60 multi-vitamin products were found to be without vitamin A warnings.
Among the suppliers without warnings on their products were big brands like Sanatogen, Centrum and Quest, he said.
He said Boots and Tesco products did carry warnings.
Mr Strick, a 42-year-old father of two, said: "People are suing tobacco firms these days so it is not inconceivable that mothers with defected children may sue a manufacturer for not labelling its products."
He added that if manufacturers dragged their feet in agreeing to label products, then moves would be made to get legislation imposed to "tighten it (the industry) up."
Bayer Healthcare, which owns the Sanatogen brand, said that a number of their multi-vitamin products, those not specifically targeted at pregnant women, "currently do not contain a specific warning regarding vitamin A."
In a statement, the firm added: "Bayer Consumer Care agrees with the report that good labelling for all vitamin products is essential, whether these are general vitamins or those specifically marketed at pregnant women."
A spokesperson for the PAGB (Proprietary Association of Great Britain), the UK trade association representing manufacturers of over-the-counter medicines and food supplements, said in a statement: "With regards to Vitamin A, our member companies are waiting for Europe to announce recommendations for labelling and usage of Vitamin A in food supplements.
"To ensure the safety of the new born child, anybody who is pregnant or planning a pregnancy should always discuss any medication and use of food supplements with their doctor or midwife."