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Fake salt threatens public health measures

By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

Despite crackdowns, fake salt appears to be spreading across China, with industrial salt not fit for human consumption making its way into food and causing a significant health risk.

Fake Salt
Beijing law enforcement officers have seized inedible fake salt

On 5 November, a court in southwestern municipality of Chongqing sentenced 12 people from 10 months to 13 years’ imprisonment for illegally selling industrial salt as edible salt. In the largest illegal salt sale case, the criminals shipped, processed and sold 788 tonnes of industrial salt, a quantity equal to the salt consumption of 400,000 people in one year.

Just one month later, in Hezhou city of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in south China, some 30 tonnes of illegal salt were detected and confiscated and the driver involved in the shipment arrested. 

In the past year, the illegal sale of tonnes of industrial salt was also uncovered in Wuhan, Shanghai, Xi’an and other Chinese cities. 

In China, salt production is controlled by the China National Salt Industry Corporation (CNSIC). 

Most edible salt must be iodised to reduce diseases related to iodine insufficiency which is widespread across China. 

Industrial salt does not contain iodine, and eating it can cause mental and physical problems, particularly hypothyroid swelling. It is also reported that the reproductive system can be harmed consumption of non-iodine salt over a long period. In addition, because of the lower quality control criteria, industrial salt can be mingled with other chemicals during the production process and pose further health risks.

However, illegally selling industrial salt remains rampant due to the high profits that can be won. The price of edible salt is nearly 10 times of industrial salt. According to the salt regulations, industrial salt producers can only sell their products to alkali and other chemical firms, but smaller producers often violate the rules for higher profits.

China has about 3,000 salt producing companies with a total output of 68 million tonnes of crude salt annually. Only 8 million tonnes of this is processed into edible salt and the remainder is used in industry. 

But Ma Ye and Zheng Qingsi of Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, say nationwide surveys have found residents, particularly those in rural regions, purchase the illegal salt – most processed from industrial salt – because of its lower price and the inconvenience in obtaining the iodised salt from the government monopoly. In addition, some people think iodised salt is less salty than traditional non-iodine salt.1

Chen Guowei, a member of corporate supervision committee of the State Asset Supervision and Administration Commission, said at a seminar on state-owned enterprises’ monopolies held on 17 December last year that CNSIC’s monopoly over salt production has caused the higher price of edible salt and hence promoted the illegal salt market. 

While illegal non-iodine salt is causing trouble, officials from the Ministry of Health revealed that the compulsory iodine level in edible salt could be slightly reduced in the coming year due to the improved iodine situation among the population as a result of several decades’ iodised salt consumption. Different Chinese regions will be able to adjust the iodine content in accordance with levels of iodine deficiency in their regions.


1. M Ye and Z Qingsi, Chinese Journal of Endemiology, Vol. 23, July 2004, 347-349. (in Chinese)