Fearing Radiation, Chinese Rush to Buy...Table Salt?
Japan's nuclear crisis is fueling panic in China, where shoppers have spurred a run on salt in attempt to prevent radiation-related illnesses and to secure uncontaminated salt sources.
China's top economic agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, warned consumers Thursday against hoarding salt, and said it would work with local authorities to maintain price stability and market supply. Grocery store shelves have been ransacked over the past several days.
Consumers in cities along the China's coastline, such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, and even in inland capital Beijing, began stockpiling table salt after problems at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power complex sparked concerns that radiation would spread to China by air and sea, possibly contaminating the land and future food sources. While iodized table salt does contain healthy, nonradioactive iodine, health authorities say it doesn't contain enough to protect the body against damage from radioactive iodine that may be released during a nuclear event.
Further, only a fraction of China's salt for consumption comes from the sea, said Song Zhangjing, a spokesman for industry organization the China Salt ? Association. 'In China, most salt are from salt mines.'
China's salt-buying rush is a sign of widespread fear that Japan's nuclear woes will have far-reaching implications beyond the island. News of Fukushima's nuclear leaks have stirred up memories of Ukraine's nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 and fears that nuclear disaster will not be contained.
Experts and Japanese officials have said it is highly unlikely Fukushima's problems will be as bad as Chernobyl's, and Chinese officials have said they don't expect the radiation in Japan to cause harm in China. On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing distributed a message to American citizens saying: 'Based on information from authoritative sources in the U.S. and throughout the region, there is currently no evidence to suggest that nuclear events in Fukushima, Japan will have any health impact on individuals residing in China.'
Fears of a salt shortage also spread to Hong Kong, where many supermarkets ran out of salt early Thursday as nervous shoppers stocked up on supplies. In several supermarkets in some of Hong Kong's busiest shopping districts, supermarket staffers said they didn't know when new shipments would arrive.
The government's top food safety official called the salt run 'totally unfounded.' York Chow, Secretary for Food and Health, said in a statement that salt supplies won't be affected by contamination around Japan's waters because 'the sea water around Japan will be much diluted or washed off after some time, and he said there's no reason to take iodine tablets because they're only used for people are in close contact with high levels of radiation. Buying salt for its iodine content is 'totally totally unfounded, both scientifically and medically,' he said.
Chinese parents have also begun to stock up on Japanese-produced infant formula, assuming that future supply will be limited or contaminated. Citizens in Shanghai, about 1,800 kilometers west of Fukushima, have filled their medicine cabinets with iodine pills. People are also circulating over email a doctored map that shows Northeast Asia under a pink cloud of radiation seeping from Japan.
Concerns about transborder radiation are reaching far beyond China, as people in countries as distant as Singapore and the Philippines struggle to understand the effects of nuclear disasters.
Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea have announced plans to monitor fresh produce for signs of contagion. Thailand authorities said they are prepared to test all Japanese goods.
Chinese authorities have been intensifying efforts to reassure citizens that radiation leaks in Japan pose no imminent threats. The Ministry of Environmental Protection published on its website Wednesday a chart of radiation in 41 cities across China, declaring that 'radiation levels have not been affected by the Japanese nuclear power accident.'
Still, many consumers here are in panic mode. Liu Jia, a 36-year-old office worker at Citic Securities Co., was afraid after trying unsuccessfully to buy salt at a Beijing grocery store, where signs that said, 'No More Salt,' hovered above the salt section of the store.
'If you don't move quickly, you won't be able to buy any clean salt without radiation,' Ms. Liu said.
Many shoppers in China are also buying up sea salt instead of typical table salt fear future sources will be depleted and unsafe, according to China's state-owned media company Xinhua.
Standing next to Ms. Liu was a crowd of others who were also looking to buy salt. 'It's always safe to do what the majority are doing,' said Michael Zeng, a 21-year-old college student in Beijing.
A Wal-Mart store in the Yangpu district of Shanghai is considering limits on salt buys.
Some in China are making light of the fright. Taobao.com, the online marketplace of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd., is advertising free salt packets with the purchase of a pair of shoes.
One person on China's Sina Weibo, a microblogging site similar to Twitter, wrote, 'I have 2 kilograms of salt in stock, do you want to marry me?'